Back in August, Donald Trump did something that’s very odd for him. He admitted that his campaign was in big trouble somewhere.
"You’ve got to get your people out to vote. [We’re] having a tremendous problem in Utah," Trump told an audience of evangelical pastors in Florida.
Now, Utah is one of the most Republican states in the country, and usually one a GOP presidential candidate can take for granted. Mitt Romney won it by 48 points in 2012.
But a poll released this Wednesday by Y2 Analytics proves Trump was right to be concerned. The poll shows Trump and Clinton shockingly tied in Utah, each with the support of just 26 percent of the electorate. Meanwhile, third-party candidate Evan McMullin is barely behind them, with 22 percent of the vote, and Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson is at 14 percent.
For the time being, this is just one poll, although it's significant because it's the first in the state since Trump's leaked tape scandal — which has led to many politicians in the state renouncing their endorsements of him (Gov. Gary Herbert, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Rep. Mia Love) or escalating their condemnations of him (Sen. Mike Lee).
But even before this, the Utah race has long looked like it would be closer this time around. Back in August, the New York Times’s Alan Rappeport wrote about Trump’s troubles there, Hillary Clinton wrote an op-ed in the Deseret News in which she tried to win over Mormon voters, and Bill Clinton made a fundraising swing there.
And during the primaries, Utah was one of only two state contests in the entire country in which Trump failed to come in first or second place. He finished third out of the three remaining candidates there, behind Ted Cruz and John Kasich, with a pathetic 14 percent of the statewide caucus vote. So the distaste for Trump in Utah runs deep.
Why Trump has this "problem" in Utah
As Rappeport wrote, Trump’s problems in the state are primarily problems with Mormons, who make up about 62 percent of the state’s population. Part of this is likely due to Trump’s aggressive, profane personal style and his lack of concern for traditional social issues — concerns surely only heightened by the release of Trump's "grab 'em by the pussy" tape.
But the candidate’s willingness to scapegoat American Muslims and refugees also seems to have played a major role. His proposals and rhetoric conflict with Mormon teachings and instincts — their own minority faith has faced much discrimination in the past, after all.
Last December, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints released a statement clearly aimed at criticizing Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration. "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," the statement read.
Clinton went after Trump on these exact topics in her Deseret News op-ed in August, writing that she’d fight to "defend religious freedom" for "oppressed communities," and that "Trump’s Muslim ban would undo centuries of American tradition and values."
Key Utah Republicans have also opposed Trump for months. Mitt Romney (who lives there now) gave a speech condemning his candidacy and has vowed not to vote for him. Sen. Mike Lee has long harshly criticized Trump.
And when former Sen. Bob Bennett was on his deathbed earlier this year, he reportedly asked if there were "any Muslims in the hospital" so he could "thank them for being in this country, and apologize to them on behalf of the Republican Party for Donald Trump." It's difficult to imagine a stronger repudiation than that.
Still, Trump seemed to be remaining on top in the polls despite all this — until his leaked tape scandal, which played especially poorly in the religious and conservative state. "Hitting on married women? Condoning assault? Such vile degradations demean our wives and daughters and corrupt America's face to the world," Romney tweeted, as Utah Republican politicians stampeded to condemn and unendorse Trump.
McMullinmentum is happening
Despite Trump’s troubles, it remains hard to imagine Clinton managing to get anywhere near 51 percent of the vote in such a conservative state. But that’s where the third-party candidates come in. Some polls have occasionally shown Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson doing reasonably well in Utah — the newest puts him at 14 percent.
The real reason things are interesting in the state, though, is the candidacy of Evan McMullin. A former GOP House staffer who announced in August that he was running for president as an anti-Trump independent, McMullin missed important ballot deadlines in several states, and is drawing very little support in many of the states he did qualify for, so his candidacy has generally been greeted with mockery.
In Utah, though, he could be a real player. McMullin is Mormon and attended Brigham Young University, so he has some ties to the state. And the state seems to have many anti-Trump social conservative voters who just can’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton or Johnson — voters who might see McMullin as a more attractive option.
It’s long been unclear how many Utah Republicans so strongly dislike Trump that they’d prefer to effectively cast a protest vote to a favorite son candidate who can’t win. But the Y2 Analytics poll suggests there are more of them this week than there were before Trump's leaked tape scandal.
Indeed, the poll puts McMullin just 4 points behind Clinton and Trump, suggesting that he has a real chance of winning the state outright, particularly if he wins endorsements from the Utah politicians who have lately denounced Trump.
Realistically, if Clinton won Utah, it would be highly unlikely for that to be the state that puts her over the top in the Electoral College. If she wins the state, she’s probably done well enough elsewhere in the country that she’s won the election comfortably and doesn’t need Utah’s six electoral votes.
But even if McMullin wins the state, Clinton would be thrilled that six supposedly sure Trump votes are no longer in the GOP nominee's column, thus further complicating his path to 270 electoral votes. So overall, Trump's Utah troubles are yet another massive problem for him in a race that looks to be increasingly slipping out of his grasp.
This post has been updated with the new poll and recent news developments.
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