Why Utah, alone, is seriously considering a third choice

Mormons, perhaps more than any other religious group, have struggled to reconcile the values of their faith with the choices they face at the ballot box this year.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Ezra Hainsworth, a junior at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah, wears a stars-and-stripes jacket on the first day of early voting on campus on Nov. 1. Mr. Hainsworth, a member of student government and a practicing Mormon, says he still hasn't decided which presidential candidate to support.

Ezra Hainsworth, bedecked in a stars-and-stripes jacket, stands ready to urge fellow students at Dixie State University into the campus’s early voting booths.

But the college student can’t yet step into one himself: Unusually for someone involved in a get out the vote effort, he doesn’t know whom he’s going to vote for next week.

“I disagree with Hillary’s policies and politics, and Trump lives a lifestyle we don’t support, either,” says Mr. Hainsworth, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “It’s still up in the air for me.”

Mormons, perhaps more than any other religious group, have struggled to reconcile the values of their faith with the choices they face at the ballot box this year. Hainsworth’s and his fellow Mormons’ hesitation means there’s a well-documented possibility the deep-red state, where they make up 60 percent of the electorate, may not choose a Republican for the first time in half a century. That doesn’t mean Utah is going to choose Mrs. Clinton, either. Instead, Evan McMullin, a former CIA operative who has raised less than $1 million, is the first independent candidate since George Wallace to have even an outside shot at winning a state.

“Utah more than any other state represents much of the country's misgivings about Donald Trump in particular," says Henrie Walton, director of the Institute of Politics at Dixie.

“Evan McMullin is a moral safe place and an emotional safe place. He allows Mormons to feel good about themselves while having done their civic duty."

Certainly, members of other conservative faiths have struggled with their choice this year – with young Evangelicals and women expressing their unwillingness to support the GOP candidate. But the sense of civic obligation to help preserve the democratic country in which their faith was founded is particularly strong among Mormons, experts say. Sitting out an election as important as this one would be unconscionable. As a result, the “lesser of two evils” struggle may feel even more pronounced.

“The Mormon church takes very seriously the civic duty to go out and vote,” Mr. Walton says. “It’s important that members cast their ballot not just based on a candidate’s policy positions but also on their moral character.”

Like many religious voters, residents of this corner of southwest Utah say hearing Trump casually discussing sexual assault on a hot mic was disturbing, to say the least. But unlike many other conservatives, Mormon voters also are put off by his proposals to keep Muslims and Syrian refugees out of the country. Singling out members of a minority faith does not sit well with those whose ancestors faced violent persecution for their faith, scholars and political analysts say.

“Utahns want to feel good about who they’re voting for,” says Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at Utah University. “People are not feeling comfortable.”

While that feeling is shared fairly widely among much of the electorate in 2016, the shape it has taken in Utah is unique to that state. The beneficiary: Mr. McMullin, a Utah native and graduate of Brigham Young University, who is on the ballot in 11 states. The former chief policy director for the House Republican Conference saw a surge in support following the release in early October of the "Access Hollywood" video that featured Trump talking about groping women.

On Sept. 25, McMullin had the support of about 12 percent of likely voters in the state, giving Trump a comfortable lead at 34 percent, according to data collected by the Hinckley Institute and The Salt Lake Tribune. By the end of October, support for McMullin had swelled to 30 percent – putting him only two percentage points behind Trump, who had dropped to 32 percent. (Clinton hovered at 25 percent through the same period.)

Ann Oakley, a St. George resident and LDS church member, says she used to think that casting her ballot for McMullin was just another way of helping Clinton win. But since the release of the Trump video, “I’m leaning toward voting for him,” she says. “It would at least send a message that we don’t approve of either candidate.”

Nancy Ross, who teaches at Dixie and until last November was a practicing Mormon, sees it differently. To her, a vote for McMullin is less as an act of defiance as an inability to make a tough decision – and emblematic of what she says is the LDS church’s tendency to frame issues in black and white.

“Morality frames everything in good and bad,” says Dr. Ross, an avid Clinton supporter who left the church because of its position on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. “Anything gray is automatically tainted. Evan McMullin provides an easy choice.”

“It’s a cop out,” she says.

There are signs McMullin’s ascent may have reached a ceiling. And it doesn’t mean Utah is going to be added to the list of swing states, like Florida and Ohio, going forward.

“I’m not convinced that this means that Utah voters are abandoning the Republican Party,” says W. Paul Reeve, author of several books on Mormon issues and director of graduate studies in history at the University of Utah.

But McMullin’s surprise surge so close to Election Day speaks to the depth of Utahns’ dissatisfaction.

“This has been a reliably red state for 52 years,” says Mr. Perry at the University of Utah, noting that the last Democratic presidential candidate to win the state was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Now, he says, “a third party is making headway. And it’s not because they know him – they don’t. It’s who he is not.”

Meanwhile, some Mormon voters in Utah – and in St. George, a college town in the state's deeply conservative southwestern region – continue to grapple with the conflict in conscience the candidates present. 

“I want to leave feeling like I voted for what I felt was right,” says Anilee Bundy, who remains undecided. “I like to live my life that way. I think voting shouldn’t be any different.”

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Nancy Ross's name.

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