Why Utah’s Mormons waffle on this year’s GOP candidate

Trump sparks a conflict between morality and political belief.

 

Visitors walk by the Latter-day Saints Temple in Salt Lake City. Donald Trump’s morals and policy positions have led some Mormons, who typically vote Republican, to rethink their party vote for this election.
Kim Raff

When Donald Trump was named the Republican presidential nominee, Calene Van Noy, a 42-year-old member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said she felt a sense of horror. In every other presidential race she’d been eligible to vote in, she’d supported the GOP, and for a second, she entertained the possibility of doing so again. But then she remembered what Trump had said about immigrants, Muslims and Syrian refugees, and Van Noy knew that this year would be different.

Many of Van Noy’s Mormon neighbors, motivated in part by their faith’s not-too-distant history of persecution, believe in helping refugees. “They are amazing,” she says of refugees. “They’re the sort of people we want in America.”

Mormons are normally among the West’s most reliable Republican voters, but not this year. In Utah, where two-thirds of eligible voters are members of the Mormon Church, the latest polls show Trump just 15 points ahead of his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton — 39 percent to 24 percent. The contrast with past elections is striking: In the last three presidential contests, Republican candidates won between 63 and 73 percent of the Utah vote.

Trump’s dismal support among Mormons has turned Utah into a swing state for the first time since 1964, as LDS voters find themselves torn between their political and ethical beliefs. As Trump himself put it to a group of evangelical leaders at an August event in Orlando: “We’re having a tremendous problem in Utah.”

Trump’s Utah problem is fairly easy to explain. “He’s rude, insulting, racist, misogynist, arrogant, flippant, ill-informed, and, more than anything, is completely self-obsessed,” says Sven Wilson, a longtime Republican and former Utah GOP state delegate. “Mormons strive to be a highly moral people, and Trump is a morally hideous man — and proud of it.”

For the Mormon Church, Trump crossed a line last December. His call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S. was a disturbing echo of Secretary of State William Evarts’ attempt in 1879 — under President Rutherford B. Hayes — to limit Mormon immigration to the United States. After Trump’s proposed Muslim ban, the church issued a statement: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is neutral in regard to party politics and election campaigns. However, it is not neutral in relation to religious freedom.”

Still, voting decisions among Mormons are less clear-cut. Polls show that 56 percent of Utah’s Mormons dislike Trump, but even more are turned off by Clinton, with 84 percent giving her an unfavorable rating in one recent poll.

Clinton will have a tough time capitalizing on Trump’s weakness in Utah. “A lot of Mormons will still vote for Trump,” says Wilson, “but most will do so holding their noses.”

Steve Densley, a Salt Lake City-based attorney and registered Republican, calls Trump a “vulgar, devious swine,” but he says he will vote for him nevertheless. Since none of the third-party candidates have a hope of winning the general election, voting for an independent, in Densley’s view, is like voting for Clinton, which he says he could never do: “We can’t always count on Trump to act like a conservative, but we can count on Hillary to act like a liberal.”

Densley’s confidence that Trump is more likely to appoint conservatives to federal office was bolstered by the GOP nominee’s choice of Mike Pence as a running mate and by Trump’s list of potential Supreme Court nominees, which includes Utah Justice Thomas Lee, a popular conservative candidate among many -Mormons.

Trump has also won support among some of Utah’s political elite, including Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund and Robert Oakes, a former general authority of the LDS Church. Like Densley, they believe that Trump would fill government positions with people who reflect conservative values, such as strengthening national defense, protecting religious liberties, and promoting family values.

After disavowing Trump, Van Noy contemplated voting for Clinton. But when she pictured herself at the polls, she decided she could not do it — not with Clinton being a Democrat. In addition, Van Noy feels that Clinton shares some of Trump’s flaws, including the sense of “being above the law.” Instead, she plans on voting for independent candidate Evan McMullin, a Utah native and a Mormon, who is positioning himself as an alternative to Trump. 

A strong showing for McMullin in Utah would be good news for Clinton, says Jeremy Pope, the co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. Even if McMullin does well only in the Beehive State, it would be a bad sign for the GOP, since the chances of Trump winning the presidency without Utah are slim.

Van Noy has reluctantly reconciled herself to that outcome. “At least with Clinton, we know what kind of mess we’d get,” she says. “With Trump, who knows what kind of chaos he would unleash? It’s scary for America and for the world.”  

Correspondent Sarah Tory writes from Paonia, Colorado.