Why does Trump have a Mormon problem?

For the first time since Lyndon B. Johnson, Utah has become a swing state, as many Mormon voters find themselves torn between their moral and political convictions.

Evan Vucci/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to a group of pastors at the Orlando Convention Center, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. He told them he has a 'tremendous problem' with Mormon-rich, traditionally Republican Utah.

The unorthodox campaign of Donald Trump has a question, one that no Republican presidential candidate in half a century has had to ask: What is the problem in Utah?

"Utah is a different place," Mr. Trump told a gathering of evangelical Christian pastors in Orlando, Fla., on Thursday. "Is anyone here from Utah?... I didn't think so. We're having a problem."

As it has nationally, Trump's campaign has created a rift in Utah's Republican Party, openly dividing Mormons and other GOP voting blocs and transforming the Mormon-rich, Republican stronghold into a swing state for the first time since Lyndon B. Johnson.   

In explaining this rift, Utahns told the Monitor about how they see the GOP candidate and why his promises to "make America great again," aren't resonating with this traditionally bright-red electorate. They point to moral, historical, and political convictions in unusual tension during the 2016 election.

Evidence of Trump's Utah "tremendous problem" emerged in March, during the Republican caucus. Trump came in a distant third, carrying just 14 percent of the vote behind Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas and Gov. John Kasich (R) of Ohio.

Trump is currently polling at just 37 percent – compared with Clinton's 25 percent in Utah, which is fairly normal for Democrats in the state. And two state polls have Trump now tied with Clinton.  The contrast with recent history is significant: In 2004, George W. Bush got 72 percent of Utah voters. In 2008, Sen. John McCain of Arizona won 63 percent. And LDS church member Mitt Romney got nearly 73 percent in 2012. 

The aversion to Trump lies partly in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Each July, Utah celebrates how early pioneers fled to Utah to escape persecution in the Midwest. Indeed, history plays an outsized role in the outlook of voters in Mormon-heavy areas of Utah, Arizona, and Idaho, where thousands of Mormon teenagers remember their religious history by hiking through the mountains in reenactments of the handcart treks that brought early Mormons West.

"That whole Muslim ban with Trump – oh, that's hit bad with Utahns, and we have that whole history with persecution and [the ban on the early Mormons]," says Calene Van Noy, a lifelong Mormon involved with Utah's caucus-based political scene. "There’s a big huge movement to help the refugees, and we’ve got the missionaries who go all over the world and come back with such a love of the people."

Scott Isaacson, a Republican state delegate in Utah, agrees that the state's unique history – especially in a culture centered on family – helps explain the state's unusual politics in this election year.

"Mormons, with their history of having suffered persecution and even having had the governor of a state issue orders for their extermination – I mean, those are my ancestors," Mr. Isaacson tells the Monitor. 

Comments by Trump, and the GOP leadership's apparent inability to redirect the campaign toward traditional conservative values, have made the lifelong Republican wonder whether he is in the right political party. Like many Mormons, he believes he has a religious obligation to vote, but he is considering the third-party candidacy of Evan McMullin.

"I’ve been a Republican delegate, I should be a loyal Republican," Isaacson says. But "I can’t belong to a party that has [Trump] as the head.”

Van Noy has similar concerns, and she has also come to see her vote as having moral implications that outweigh her usual politics.

"When you’ve got these kind of high standards and you have this vision of America, and somebody comes along that you just see as dangerous that you just can’t trust, it’s hard to get behind that," she tells the Monitor. "[With a third-party vote] a lot of people say you’re throwing your vote away, but it’s the integrity of your vote. When my children ask, 'Who are you voting for?' I want to be able to feel good about my answer."

Not all of the state's Mormons see their moral obligation in this light. Kelly Stewart, a Utah realtor who has been attracted to Trump's political ideas since the primaries, says it's "God's job" to judge Trump's personal life and faith.

He has never heard Trump mention either his own religion or Islam; rather, he is impressed with Trump's proposals for simplifying the tax code to help the middle class and incentivize corporations to keep their business stateside.

"For me, it's anybody but Hillary," Mr. Stewart tells the Monitor. "Really I don't like a lot of the stuff that Trump is talking about, but I really don’t trust Hillary Clinton at all."

He has one thing in common with his "never Trump" fellow Utahns – he is puzzled by the Republican leadership's response to Trump, and his vote this November will be personal rather than partisan. 

"It’s not even that he’s a Republican, it’s the fact that he can make change," Stewart says. "[Trump] can turn it all around in Washington, plus [appoint conservative] Supreme Court justices." 

The political and moral crosscurrents stirred by the Trump candidacy could loosen the ties that have bound the state to the GOP for decades.

"At this point there is no question that one of the reddest states in the country is making history by suddenly becoming a swing state, at least for this particular election," says Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

On Thursday, in acknowledging that Utah is becoming "a tremendous problem," Trump was speaking to evangelical Christian pastors. He told them that he has "been given a false narrative," and advised the group to "spread the word this will be so great for religion," reported the Washington Post.

Mormons and political analysts saw this speech as sacrificing Mormons – and the Utah vote – in a bid to win conservative Christian voters.

Bryan Berrong, a high school history teacher in Utah and Mormon, worries that nationally Trump is exploiting the anti-Mormon sentiment that surfaced during Mitt Romney's campaign for president, when some evangelicals objected to voting for a "non-Christian" candidate. The willingness to exploit issues of faith for political gain has him and other Utahns worried about religious freedom, Mr. Berrong says. 

With Mr. Romney actively working against him and support fading elsewhere, Trump is "taking advantage of the historical evangelical distaste for Mormons to shore up his support among conservative Protestants," Dr. Chesnut says.

The Republican nominee's willingness to sacrifice Utah to the more numerous evangelical demographic has not gone unnoticed by the state's diehard Republicans.

"A lot of people I’ve talked to have said they’d rather vote Hillary than Trump, and those are people who’ve voted Republican all their lives," says Van Noy. "There’s a feeling that either the Republican party needs to change, or there needs to be an emergence of a third party."

Trump may be asking questions about the Mormons, but his candidacy is forcing them to ask equally surprising questions about their politics.

"I’ve had several friends ask me, 'Why do the Mormons belong to the party that doesn’t like them?' " Isaacson says. "I think most people here are much more loyal to their religious beliefs than they are to their political beliefs." 

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