Four years ago, conservative unknown Evan McMullin emerged from obscurity three months before the election and became an alternative for many Latter-day Saint Republicans who could not bring themselves to vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
There were many.
A supermajority of U.S. church members have voted Republican for decades now, but a crack in that monolith emerged in 2016 as support for the GOP nominee among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints nosedived to 61% nationally from the typical 80%.
It was worse in Utah, where Trump earned 45.5% of the vote four years after Mitt Romney won 72.6%. McMullin’s 21.5% of the Utah vote explained most of the difference in that state. Nationwide, he earned 732,000 votes.
McMullin is not running this time, leaving behind tens of thousands of Latter-day Saint voters that one Biden supporter has called “politically homeless.” Which way this group in the middle decides to vote next week could become vital for either Trump or Biden.
As the two campaigns each try to blaze a path to victory in the Electoral College to return their candidate to the White House, some of the possible scenarios consist of Latter-day Saint voters casting the decisive votes in battleground states like Arizona, Nevada, North Carolina and Florida.
“There are a lot of Latter-day Saints in Arizona and Nevada” — well over half a million — “and both states could go either way,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who will campaign for Trump in Arizona on Tuesday. “I think there are some members of the church who are genuinely on the fence.”
Will Trump scoop up a significant number of them this time around? So far this year, polls show the president’s approval rating among Latter-day Saint voters at about 55% to 60%, about like 2016, according to Gallup and AP VoteCast.
McMullin said he will vote for Biden, but how many will follow him in spite of their disenchantment with the Democratic Party platform? Or will many Latter-day Saints simply not vote or perhaps do as Mitt Romney did in 2016 and write in someone else? (Romney already has voted against Trump this fall, but he has not revealed for whom he voted.)
Both campaigns, and McMullin’s PAC, are targeting those disaffected Latter-day Saint Republicans. The sides are releasing competing videos of church members declaring Trump or Biden the better candidate.
The church continues to maintain its policy of neutrality in political campaigns. Church leaders recently reiterated their encouragement to members to vote but also to be models of civility in the election process.
Trump became president in 2016 by narrowly flipping Florida, where he won by 1.2 percentage points, and Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where his edge was less than a percentage point.
This time, he likely will need a different path to victory, analysts say. Biden has a clear lead in polling in Michigan and is ahead in Wisconsin.
Trump can win again if he carries Florida and Pennsylvania and retains North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia and Ohio, according to a recent AP analysis. He is also trying to grab Nevada from the Democrats.
Those undecided Latter-day Saint voters represent one of the best opportunities to gain an edge in four of those states because most other voters appear resolute in their support for one candidate or the other.
Arizona is the best example, said Y2 Analytics pollster Quin Monson, who has a poll in the field in the state right now. A previous poll in Utah helped motivate the Arizona sampling.
“Among very active Latter-day Saints, we have Joe Biden in Utah at 26%, compared to 9% for Hillary Clinton in 2016,” Monson said. “When you go from high single digits or low teens to close to 30% or high 20s, that’s a significant shift. Now, the Democratic nominee is not going to get majority support from Latter-day Saint voters in 2020, but if it’s a close election in Arizona, which it is, this is a group that is a difference-maker.”
If Latter-day Saint voters in Arizona are anything like their Utah counterparts, and an earlier NationScape survey suggested an even larger dissatisfaction with Trump is possible there, some 50,000 to 75,000 votes could be in play in a state that Trump won by 91,000 votes last time.
Monson sees a scenario where Trump and Biden split the Rust Belt/Great Lakes states and all eyes turn to Arizona as its polls close later on Nov. 3.
“Joe Biden’s right to be engaging with Latter-day Saints voters, especially in Arizona and Nevada,” Monson said. “And Donald Trump is right to be worried about losing support among Latter-day Saints and sending Vice President Pence out to woo them, because if the election ends up being relatively close and hinging on some battleground states for an electoral college victory, that can be a big deal, those 50,000 or so votes could be a difference-maker.”
The root of the quandary
Of course, some of those Latter-day Saints will swing to Trump. Lee is one who already has. The senator voted for McMullin in 2016 because he didn’t think Trump would win or govern as a conservative if he did. He moved toward support for Trump after the election.
Others have not made the move, Monson said, turned off by false statements by the president and his harsh attacks on opponents.
“I think that’s the root of the quandary,” the pollster said, “and that’s why the percentage of Latter-day Saints supporting the Republican nominee is, I think, hitting this low point in what I would say is at least a generation, this election and last election. It’s really striking.”
For some church members, the idea of voting for anyone other than the Republican nominee is uncomfortable at best.
“The problem for Latter-day Saint Republicans is they have a Republican identity that has been part of their life, for some people since they were children or since they were teens, and they have a religious identity that’s also very important,” Monson said.
“Those two identities pushed many Latter-day Saints in 2004 and 2008 and 2012 in the same direction. They found social issues and pretty high-quality Republican nominees that allowed them to not have those two identities in conflict. But in 2016 and again in 2020, Donald Trump is putting that religious identity and that partisan identity in conflict for many Republican Latter-day Saints.”
Lee and other Trump supporters recognize the concerns about the president’s imperfections and are making a case for why Latter-day Saints can vote for him this go-round. Lee explained his support for Trump in an op-ed published by the Deseret News opinion pages over the weekend.
“Those Utahns and those Latter-day Saints who are on the fence about him, I understand the point that the way he speaks sometimes gives people pause,” he said Monday before the final Senate vote to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. “I was raised in Provo (Utah). He was not raised in Provo. He has a different way of communicating than I do. It’s one of the issues I had to work through.”
Lee has become close to the Trump family, particularly Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, who Lee said he has spoken with by phone five to six times a day over long periods of time.
Prioritizing Latter-day Saint voters
In addition to Lee, Trump has a number of Latter-day Saints in his orbit.
The highest-ranking Latter-day Saint in the government is Robert O’Brien, who Trump added to his Cabinet as national security adviser a year ago to replace John Bolton. Another church member, Ronna Romney McDaniel, chairs the Republican National Committee. Billy Kirkland, a former special assistant to the president, is active in the campaign and published an op-ed Monday in an Arizona publication headlined, “President Trump has been a Godsend to the Faith Community.”
Donald Trump Jr. is the campaign’s chief envoy to the Latter-day Saints, according to the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins, making multiple visits to states with larger populations. He visited Utah for Pioneer Day this summer and characterized his father as an outsider with a pioneer spirit.
In August, the campaign launched Latter-day Saints for Trump. Co-chair Cindy Biggs is the wife of Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., and she is adamant that Democrats will not be able to use Latter-day Saint voters to swing Arizona to Biden.
“They are not going to be able to do that,” she said. “There’s no way, no way they’ll be able to do it. This is just a tiny minority.”
That minority includes former Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. And Rob Taber, the national co-chair of the LDS Democrats of America who referred to “politically homeless” Latter-day Saints, said there are enough to make a difference. He believes Biden may be able to peel off 33% to 35% of the Latter-day Saint vote, based on NationScape polling earlier this year.
“That could shift 75,000 voters in Arizona and 90,000 in Texas,” where FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver on Monday said a virtual tie exists, Taber said. Another 60,000 could move in Florida, 30,000 in both North Carolina and Georgia and 20,000 in Pennsylvania.
“These are states that come right down to the wire by thousands of votes,” he said. “Trump won the Electoral College in 2016 by 10,000 votes scattered across multiple states.”
“It’s just really important to prioritize our engagement with the Latter-day Saint community,” said Joshua Dickson, the Biden campaign’s National Faith Engagement Director. “I don’t think you can find a more robust LDS engagement effort from a Democratic presidential campaign that I’m aware of as the one you’ve seen this time around. We’re not going to leave any LDS votes on the table.”
There is little existing infrastructure to target Latter-day Saint voters directly. Church policy requires all leaders to remain strictly non-partisan in their roles, unlike evangelical or other faith leaders who have influence with their flocks and beyond.
So the Biden campaign has worked closely with Latter-day Saints for Biden-Harris to create engagements in battleground states.
McMullin said he ran in 2016 believing, like Lee, that Trump would lose and planning to help remake the Republican Party by steering it away from extremism. When Trump won, he launched Stand Up Republic, a group that now works against political extremism in both parties.
Smaller interest groups
The possibility that some of the Latter-day Saint vote may be up for grabs and could be decisive has drawn national attention, sparking stories by the New York Times, Politico, the Baptist News and coverage in the battleground states, including dueling op-eds.
The Deseret News published op-eds earlier this month by Vice President Mike Pence and Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, who before the vice presidential debate in Salt Lake City visited This Is the Place Heritage Park, where the Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.
The situation also has spawned unaffiliated grass-roots efforts to win hearts and minds.
For example, retired Brigham Young University professor Frank W. Fox, who literally wrote the book for the American Heritage classes attended by tens of thousands of graduates, posted a video plea to vote Trump out: “2020 is exactly why BYU students study American Heritage … and this is not a test!” he wrote on the Facebook post introducing the video, which has 6,700 shares.
A new group called Women of Faith Speak Up and Speak Out posted a video in which a number of Latter-day Saint women share their reasons why they will vote against Trump.
Dan Barker, a church member in Arizona, launched Arizona Republicans Who Believe in Treating Others With Respect, which has printed and distributed signs that say, “Arizona Republicans for Biden.”
Latter-day Saints for Trump responded with a longer video calling the president the Great Protector. It features Lee, BYU Hall of Fame quarterback Ty Detmer, Utah congressional candidate Burgess Owens and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes.
“I feel like we’re under attack and that makes me nervous for my kids; I’ve got four daughters,” Detmer says in the video. “After President Obama, I think it felt like we were ready for a change and to get back to some of those conservative values, freedom of choice and pro-life. The way things have been going with President Trump, I think he’s getting things back to America.”
Political diversity and unity
There are other issues that resonate with Trump-supporting Latter-day Saints. Lee mentions Trump’s work to free Josh Holt from Venezuela and to protect the church’s missionaries around the world. He also praised the president’s judicial appointments, commitment to religious liberty, work on criminal reform and his relative dovishness.
“He’s probably the least-hawkish president who has served in my lifetime,” Lee said. Republicans in recent decades have been more on the hawkish side and have not been supportive on the criminal reform side. He’s been more reluctant to get us into war than any president in decades. President Trump has kept us out of conflicts where I think others would have gotten us into them.”
Lee and Cindy Biggs, the co-chair of Latter-day Saints for Trump, both said the private Trump is more compassionate than the public persona.
She appreciates his efforts to lower taxes and reduce government regulation.
Las Vegas resident Iris Jones immigrated from Ecuador seven years ago and is now a U.S. citizen who backs Trump in part because she doesn’t want to see an increase in socialism, the system in her native country. She worked Saturday as a poll watcher for the Trump campaign in Nevada and will do so again on election day.
“I have a president who for the last four years kept his promises, who declared churches essential, who is fighting for religious freedom, who is protecting the life of a newborn,” she said before attending her sacrament meeting on Sunday in Las Vegas, where those worship services resumed only eight weeks ago because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Regardless of the election’s result, Taber hopes “that in future presidential years we can all be a little less surprised by the political diversity among Latter-day Saints.”