Evan McMullin, ex-CIA officer and current independent presidential candidate, has stayed largely off the media radar since announcing his candidacy in August.
But the conservative former Republican policy chief in the House, who has positioned himself as a center-right alternative to Donald Trump, has nearly caught up to the Republican nominee in the polls in one state: Utah.
A new poll released Wednesday by Utah-based Y2 Analytics found Mr. McMullin polling at 22 percent, just four points behind Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton, who were tied at 26 percent. Support for McMullin is significantly higher than it was just one month ago, when he had the support of 12 percent of Utahans. Political analysts attribute the rise largely to sexually aggressive comments made by Trump in 2005, which surfaced last week in a video and were quickly condemned by prominent Republicans in Utah and around the country.
In Utah, a state where more than 60 percent of residents are Mormon, Trump has long struggled to win over voters due to a combination of moral, historical, and political convictions. As The Christian Science Monitor's Lucy Schouten reported in August:
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...
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."
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has made efforts to win over disenchanted Mormon voters. In August, she penned an op-ed for the Deseret News, the newspaper owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, emphasizing the importance of religious freedom and comparing Trump's proposed ban on foreign Muslims entering the country to the historic persecution of Mormons in the US.
Her efforts appear to be working. The Salt Lake Tribune officially endorsed Clinton on Wednesday, writing in an editorial that "there is certainly not a perfect choice but, at this point, the only candidate who comes close to being qualified and fit for the post is Hillary Clinton."
But the lack of support for Trump has also carved out a space for third-party candidates in traditionally conservative Utah, where both McMullin and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson have headquarters. Mr. Johnson is currently polling at 14 percent in Utah, more than twice as much support as Johnson gets in national polls.
The space for a third-party right-leaning candidate grew even wider following the release of Trump's 2005 comments about women, as Republican leaders such as Mitt Romney, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, former governor Jon Huntsman and current Gov. Gary Herbert leaped to condemn the statements.
"A third-party candidate could win Utah as Utahns settle on one," Quin Monson, Y2 Analytics' founding partner, told the Deseret News.
Boyd Matheson, president of the conservative Sutherland Institute, told the church-owned newspaper that McMullin could have a chance to take votes from Trump, Clinton, and Johnson if he comes out with an agenda over the next five days.
A memo leaked from McMullin's campaign outlined the candidate's bold gamble: If he can win enough states to keep either Trump or Clinton from getting 270 electoral college votes, the election will be decided in the House of Representatives, where the center-right candidate could appeal to the Republican majority.
McMullin, who is only on the ballot in 11 states, is hoping to win a wide swath of moderates who don't like either major candidate.
"I’ll make a prediction: He’s going to win the state," said Dave Hansen, a political adviser to Rep. Mia Love (R) of Utah, to Politico on Wednesday. "I think people don’t want Trump and they don’t like Clinton out here, and he is kind of the unknown, but people like him. He’s a safe place to go to cast their ballot."