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Donald Trump might be loosening the Republican Party’s hold on Mormon voters

Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Salt Lake City, Utah before the Republican Utah caucuses in March
Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Salt Lake City, Utah before the Republican Utah caucuses in March
George Frey/Getty Images

Mormons, who are more conservative than the general American population, tend to lean much more Republican — but not as much this year.

According to a new report from the Pew Research Center, there has been a slight decline in Mormons affiliating with the Republican Party this year compared to past elections. This might indicate that the animosity between the Mormon electorate and Donald Trump is real.

This year, slightly less than half of Mormons (48 percent) describe themselves as Republicans, compared to the 61 percent of Mormons who identified as Republicans when Mitt Romney — a Mormon bishop — was the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, the Pew report found. Including Mormon voters that said they leaned Republican, that number increased to 69 percent this year, as opposed to the 78 percent of Mormons that said they leaned or affiliated with the Republican Party in 2012 and the 80 percent that supported George W. Bush in 2004.

Although a modest shift in percentage points, Pew’s data reflects a larger problem for Donald Trump, whose extreme proposals on immigration and bombastic comments have put Utah — a heavily Mormon and typically solidly red state — more into play than it’s been in previous years.

Top Mormon politicians have been publicly critical of Trump

Trump’s disconnect with Mormon Americans was perfectly captured in March before the Utah Republican caucuses at a Salt Lake City campaign rally:

"Do I love the Mormons? Okay, I love the Mormons," Trump said at the rally. Then he proceeded to question the faith of Mitt Romney, a Mormon political hero and outspoken Never Trump Republican.

"I have many friends that live in Salt Lake. I have a lot of friends; I have a lot of friends. By the way, Mitt Romney is not one of them," Trump said in March. "Did he choke? Did this guy choke? He’s a choke artist, I can’t believe. Are you sure he’s a Mormon? Are we sure?"

It doesn’t stop with Romney. Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, another prominent Mormon politician, has been publicly critical of Trump, chastising him for disparaging comments against Mexicans and Federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel, as well as against his fellow Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Then there is Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee — who has not endorsed Trump and has been closely aligned with Trump’s rival Sen. Ted Cruz — who has also censured the Republican nominee for making "statements that some have identified correctly as religiously intolerant," adding that Trump is "wildly unpopular in my state, in part because my state consists of people who are members of a religious minority church. A people who were ordered exterminated by the governor of Missouri in 1838. And statements like that make them nervous."

Trump’s bombast, extreme immigration policies, and anti-Muslim comments are often at odds with many Mormons who have been notably more open toward refugees and adamantly promote religious tolerance.

"His personal background and locker room language are off-putting to Mormons," David Campbell, a political scientist at Notre Dame University and author of Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics, tells me. "His anti-immigrant rhetoric runs counter to Mormons' views on immigration, his plan to either ban Muslims or subject them to 'extreme vetting' is radioactive to a population that has been subject to religious discrimination, including federal policies to limit the immigration of Mormons back in the 1800s."

As BuzzFeed’s political reporter, a Mormon himself, McKay Coppins wrote for the New York Times, Trump’s populist and often brash approach isn’t going to appeal to Mormons either:

Mormonism is a faith that holds up chastity as a virtue and condemns pornography as a soul-rotting vice; Mr. Trump is an unabashed adulterer who has posed for Playboy covers. Mormons draw inspiration from their ancestors’ modest frontier frugality; Mr. Trump travels the world in a tricked-out Boeing 757 with his name stamped conspicuously across the fuselage…

What’s more, Mr. Trump’s pitchfork populism doesn’t hold the same visceral appeal for a religious community with above-average education levels, relatively stable families and comfortable middle-class incomes. The urgency to "Make America Great Again" may not be quite so deeply felt.

Utah, a historically Republican haven, could be a battleground state

No Democrat has won Utah in a presidential election since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. And it’s likely that Trump will win the state this year as well. Trump is currently polling between a 9 and 15 point lead in Utah, according to most recent polling. But his lead is surprisingly narrow for a historically solidly red state.

During the primaries, Trump polled at a dismal 14 percent behind Ted Cruz and John Kasich in the Utah caucuses, so it may not take many aback to see his struggles in the state now.

Earlier this summer, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza and Philip Bump decided to to move Utah from the "solidly Republican" category to the "leaning Republican" category, noting that the "real estate mogul's tone and brand of conservatism are a uniquely poor fit for the state."

Not to mention that Trump now has the added competition of an independent presidential candidate: Evan McMullin, a Utah-born, Mormon former GOP staffer. McMullin has virtually no chance nationally (he is not even on the ballot in most states), let alone to win a single state. But it is a possibility — however slight —McMullin might be able to do enough damage to Trump in Utah to turn the state toward Clinton.

My colleague Andrew Prokop explains:

McMullin is Mormon and has ties to the state (he attended Brigham Young University). And while not all of his issue positions are yet clear, it seems plausible that for some Republican voters, he could be a more palatable alternative to Trump than Clinton orGary Johnson (both of whom might be too far to the left on social issues for conservatives’ liking).

Since Trump is already facing punishing Electoral College math, the loss of Utah’s six electoral votes could well be a grievous blow to his candidacy in a close race.

It’s clear Trump is prompting Mormons to question their faith in the Republican Party this year. Whether or not they are willing to cast their ballot for a native, virtually unknown political staffer — or even cross over to vote for Clinton — remains to be seen.

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