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Donald Trump’s Mormon problem, explained

Donald Trump Holds Rally In Utah Ahead Of State's Caucuses Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

Mormon voters are more conservative than most Americans and, overwhelmingly, more reliable Republican voters.

But Donald Trump might be changing all that this election — a shift that could have dire consequences for Trump’s already narrow prospects in November.

After the release of a hot mic tape that revealed Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, a striking poll in Utah — a heavily Mormon and typically solidly red state — showed Trump with 26 percent of the vote, putting him in a virtual three-way tie with Hillary Clinton and third-party Utahn candidate Evan McMullin, according to a report from Deseret News.

It’s not a brand new problem for Trump — even he admitted he has “a tremendous problem in Utah” at a meeting with evangelical pastors in August.

Mormon voters might lean Republican, but their conservatism has roots in modesty, family values, and a long history of religious persecution. Trump’s bombast and his policies — particularly toward immigration — are at odds with Mormon political ideals. And high-profile Mormon politicians and leaders are publicly dumping on Trump.

"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, told me in early September (before Trump even used the phrase “locker room banter” as an excuse for his lewd comments).

"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," Campbell continued.

And the problem has been a long time in the making. “Utah Republicans were perceptive enough to reject Trump in their March presidential caucus voting,” the Salt Lake City Tribune wrote in its endorsement of Clinton this week. (Trump only won 14 percent of the vote in the Utah caucuses.) Not to mention Trump has also been the subject of critique from highly regarded Mormon politicians, like Mitt Romney, who said Trump’s comments on the tape “corrupt America's face to the world.”

It’s a sign that Trump’s campaign strategy has failed to broaden his appeal in the general election, risking Utah’s six usually solidly red electoral votes in November — a loss Trump cannot afford.

Top Mormon politicians have been publicly critical of Trump

Mitt Romney Delivers Speech On State Of 2016 GOP Presidential Race
Mitt Romney gives a speech on the state of the Republican Party, calling Trump a fraud.
Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

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 NeverTrump 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?"

After the leaked tape, Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Mormon politician, pulled his support for Trump. “I’m out. I can no longer in good conscience endorse this person for president. It is some of the most abhorrent and offensive comments that you can possibly imagine,” he said.

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’s Utah Sen. Mike Lee, who has not endorsed Trump and has been closely aligned with Trump’s rival Sen. Ted Cruz; he 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 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.

As BuzzFeed political reporter McKay Coppins, a Mormon himself, 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.

Mormon affiliation with the Republican Party has seen a slight decline

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

This year, slightly fewer than half of Mormons (48 percent) describe themselves as Republicans, compared with 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 who said they leaned Republican, that number increased to 69 percent this year, as opposed to the 78 percent of Mormons who said they leaned toward or affiliated with the Republican Party in 2012 and the 80 percent who supported George W. Bush in 2004.

Although a modest shift in percentage points, Pew’s data reflects a larger problem for Trump.

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. In a two-way race, Trump still currently has 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.

Not to mention that Trump now has the added competition of an independent presidential candidate: Evan McMullin, a Utah-born, Mormon former GOP staffer. In the most recent poll from Y2 Analytics, McMullin polled at 22 percent, just 4 points behind Clinton and Trump, who were tied at 26 percent. McMullin has virtually no chance to win 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 — that he 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 or Gary 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.

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 move Utah from the "solidly Republican" category to the "leaning Republican" category, noting that Trump’s “tone and brand of conservatism are a uniquely poor fit for the state."

It’s clear Trump is prompting Mormons to question their faith in the Republican Party this year. Whether 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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