Election 2020

Mitt Romney's Lament Highlights Trump's Swing-State Mormon Problem

LDS disaffection could help swing Arizona blue.


It says something about the frazzed-out state of American politics that a statement released three weeks before election day by a senior GOP senator and recent Republican presidential nominee decrying the "vile, vituperative, hate-filled morass" of contemporary discourse and singling out the Republican president by name generated about 90 minutes worth of reaction, then was quickly superseded by the usual clamor and splat.

Yet the broadside from Sen. Mitt Romney (R–Utah)—the only GOP senator to vote for impeaching Donald Trump—reflects a practical problem facing the president's re-election campaign: Mormons, traditionally among the most rock-solid blocs within the conservative base, are defecting from the Republican Party. As a result, previously reliable red states could soon swing blue.

"A 2010 Gallup survey found that 'Mormons are both the most Republican and the most conservative of any of the major religious groups in the U.S. today,'" Politico reported last month. But: "Mormon support for the Republican ticket dropped from 80 percent in 2004 and 78 percent in 2012, to 61 percent in 2016, even as most other Christians moved further to the right, according to Pew."

A 2019 PRRI survey found that just 55 percent of Mormons hold favorable views of Trump, compared to 73 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 82 percent of Republicans overall. (Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints [LDS] represent 2 percent of the U.S. population.)

Compared to other political and religious blocs, Mormons are among the most likely to prefer personal morality, limiting government in economic affairs, deploying the military abroad, and offering a welcome mat to immigrants. Each value puts them at odds with Trump.

Romney is no LDS outlier. When a behind-the-scenes Access Hollywood tape from 2005 surfaced four years ago last week showing then-celebrity Donald Trump bragging that, as a "star," he could just "grab" women "by the pussy," and they just "let you do it," it was elected Mormons—Sen. Mike Crapo (R–Idaho), Sen. Mike Lee (R–Utah), Sen. Jeff Flake (R–Arizona)—who led the GOP defection from the party's standard-bearer. Even before that, Trump had clashed frequently with both Flake and Lee, on grounds of both policy (they prefer to constrain government) and personal comportment.

The three most Mormon states—Utah (66 percent of the population), Idaho (26 percent), and Wyoming (12 percent)—have backed Republicans for president in the past 13 elections, by double-digit percentages in each case except for Wyoming in 1992. They are unanimously projected to do so again in 2020.

But it's the number four and five LDS states, Arizona and Nevada (with 6 percent each), where the Great Mormon Battle of 2020 is being waged.

"It's not going to be shocking that Trump wins the Mormon vote," Y2 Analytics partner and Brigham Young University political science professor Quin Monson told Politico. "But if it's 10 to 15 points off of the norm in Nevada and Arizona, that's a big deal….It's the equivalent of Republicans suddenly getting a quarter of the African American vote, and I do think it's within the realm of possibility."

Trump won Arizona and its 11 electoral votes by 3.5 percentage points in 2016; lost Nevada (and its six votes) by 2.4 percentage points. Current polling has Democratic nominee Joe Biden up by 3.9 percentage points in Arizona and 6.4 in Nevada. Both states are currently projected by most prognosticators to go Democrat.

One of the unanswered questions this cycle is where the 732,000 voters in 2016 for independent (and Mormon) Evan McMullin will go. We already know that Biden has a sizable polling advantage among 2016 voters for Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein—a New York Times/Siena College poll released this week of six northern battleground states shows Biden beating Trump among Stein voters 59 percent to 9 percent, while Johnson voters went 38 percent Biden, 29 percent Libertarian nominee Jo Jorgensen, and 14 percent for Trump.

McMullin, who was on the ballot in 11 states, got 21.5 percent in Utah, 6.7 percent in Idaho, and between 0.7 percent and 1.8 percent in the other nine states. (Perhaps more impressively, he received 221,000 write-in votes, with a high of 0.7 percent in Arizona.) He received more votes than the margin between Trump and Hillary Clinton in both Utah and Minnesota, the latter of which was his third-best state.

McMullin or no, there has long been a correlation between the percentage of Mormon population and interest in third party/independent candidates. Seven of the top eight states in 2016 for combined voting percentages of nontraditional presidential candidates came from among the 10 most Mormon polities, and four of those seven states didn't have McMullin on the ballot.

Alaska, for example, with a Mormon population of 4.6 percent, voted 12.2 percent for non-Democrat/Republicans in 2016, and despite not even polling any third-party candidates so far this year currently shows a FiveThirtyEight Trump lead of just 4.8 percentage points, in a state that during my lifetime has never backed a Republican for president by fewer than 9 points. Montana (4.7 percent Mormon), which has given Republicans an average 16.4-point margin this century, is currently polling at +8.6 for Trump.

Any way you look at it, the president's re-election prospects are looking increasingly grim. And as ever, the biggest blocs of anti-Trump sentiment on the right are coming from Mormons, foreign policy interventionists, and libertarians (and various combinations thereof). For the next three weeks, the GOP's focus will be on bringing those strays back home. Should Trump lose, the question will transition to: Can those groups be reconciled?