Public Policy Polling has just come out with new numbers from the most safely Republican state in modern presidential politics: Utah. In a six-name contest, Republican Donald Trump beats Democrat Hillary Clinton 39 percent to 24 percent, with the also-rans headed up by Libertarian Gary Johnson (12 percent), independent candidate Evan McMullin (9 percent), the Constitution Party's Darrel Castle (2), and Green Jill Stein (1). Fourteen percent of poll respondents remain undecided, which is high by national standards.
The survey represents the first blip on the polling radar for McMullin, and surely comes as a blow to Johnson, despite showing him only a tick down from his previous polling in the state. The Libertarian's campaign is headquartered in Utah, and much of his regional strategy centers around the Beehive State (on which more below). The pollsters had further sport by asking voters to assess a Clinton/Trump-free ballot, only this time with Deez Nuts and Harambe added. Results: Johnson 18%, McMullin 14%, Stein 5%, Deez Nuts 4%, Darrell Castle and Harambe tied at 3%, and "not sure" taking the cake with 54%.
But the forehead-smacking headline, even on a poll which features a 15-point advantage for Trump, remains that Utah has been even remotely competitive this cycle. Of the five statewide presidential polls taken since the end of May, Trump has yet to top today's 39 percent, while Clinton was tied in one survey and down just three percentage points in another. Johnson has remained in double digits each time, perhaps soon to be joined by McMullin.
Here's how crazy that is. Take the 2016 candidates' average percentages across those five polls—Trump 35.2, Clinton 27.4, Johnson 13.4—and compare them to the last 10 presidential results in Utah (Libertarians in bold):
2012: MR 72.6 BO 24.7 GJ 1.2
2008: JM 62.2 BO 34.2 CB 1.3
2004: GB 71.5 JK 26.0 RN 1.2
2000: GB 66.8 AG 26.3 RN 4.7 PB 1.2
1996: BD 54.4 BC 33.3 RP 10.0
1992: GB 43.4 RP 27.3 BC 24.7 BG 3.8
1988: GB 66.2 MD 32.1 RP 1.2
1984: RR 74.5 WM 24.7
1980: RR 72.8 JC 20.6 JA 5.0 EC 1.2
1976: GF 62.4 JC 33.7 PG TA 2.5
(Bonus points if you can name '92's "BG" and '76's "PG" "TA" without looking.)
As you can see, Mitt Romney's massive 48-point win in 2012 was not some kind of freaky Mormon outlier—Utahns went by similar margins for George W. Bush in 2004, and even bigger ones for Ronald Reagan twice. And unlike, say, Alaska, there's no demonstrable third-party kink, with the lone exception of Ross Perot beating his national spread by nine percentage points in 1992. Libertarians only cracked the 1.0 percent threshold in 2012, 1988, and 1980.
Utah is key to Gary Johnson's aspirations. The campaign has held rallies there, focused its regional media strategy on the Salt Lake City market, and has been endorsed by a Utah state senator. Mitt Romney in June said he would consider voting Libertarian, and Johnson tried to lubricate that decision on Friday by guaranteeing Romney a slot in his prospective Cabinet (as well as saying that Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt would be "an ideal secretary of state"). The Utah delegation was among the most mutinous at the Republican National Convention, with delegates telling Anthony Fisher they were thinking about voting Libertarian, and Sen. Mike Lee telling me that he has "never anticipated voting for anyone who is not a Republican, particularly in a presidential contest," but that Trump "has yet to win me over." McMullin's success, too, underlies that the Republican nominee, even while maintaining his lead, has a miserable 31%/61% favorability/unfavorability rating in the state.
So what's the matter with Utah? The simplest explanation is probably the best: As The New York Times recently headlined it, "Mormons' Distaste for Donald Trump Puts Utah Up for Grabs." A state dominated by a long-persecuted religious minority is a bit tetchy about a candidate who has singled out Muslims for policy discrimination and attempted to build a Silent Majority-style campaign. Mormons value modesty, restraint, and thrift; Trump values ostentatious flourishes and relentless self-branding atop an empire fueled by debt. It's no surprise, for a number of reasons (including ideological principle) that prominent Senate Mormon Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) is not supporting Trump.
So how is Trumpworld handling this? Earlier this month, the candidate himself acknowledged he has a "tremendous problem in Utah," which he attempted to chip away at with an op-ed last week for the Deseret News, where he stressed restoring "conservative values" and accused Democrats of trying "to undermine our religious liberties." But there have been less diplomatic statements emanating from his camp.
Over the weekend, Breitbart.com, the house organ for Trumpism, ran a piece by former marginal GOP presidential candidate and longtime anti-immigration activist Tom Tancredo titled "Will the Mormon Church's Support for Muslim Immigration Block Trump's Victory?" Excerpt:
The truth is more simple, as is often the case in politics, and it has nothing to do with religious freedom as practiced by Americans under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
It is an open secret in Washington, D.C. that the Mormon church supports open borders and lax enforcement of immigration laws. Many Mormon politicians have been supporting amnesty and open borders for decades. […]
ISIS leaders must be rolling in the mosque's aisles in uncontrolled laughter over the Mormon concern over Muslim immigration, considering that religious liberty is the first casualty wherever radical Islam and Sharia are enforced. […]
Why is it suddenly an affront to religious liberty to say with Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, "The Constitution is not a suicide pact"?
Will that kind of Trumpian belligerence make Utah competitive? Don't bet on it: FiveThirtyEight currently puts Trump's odds of winning the state at 97.4 percent. But with Johnson and McMullin both focusing their energies there, and with at least the remote possibility of forthcoming third-party endorsements by respected Utahns, there's still a Jim Carrey-like chance. Which is borderline astonishing.