Utah Is 2016's Strangest Swing State

A deep-red state has become coveted territory for Hillary Clinton and a source of shame for Donald Trump. How did Mormons become the redeemers of a disgust-filled campaign?

A sign welcomes visitors to the state of Utah.
D Ramey Logan / Wikimedia / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Here’s some unlikely math: Say every state in the U.S. that’s even somewhat contested goes to Donald Trump in November. Say he wins Ohio and Florida and manages to hang onto potential southern defectors like North Carolina and Georgia. Only in that case, on Trump’s best possible Election Day, would Utah’s six Electoral College votes determine the outcome of the 2016 presidential race.*

And yet, everything in this election is coming up Utah. Both the Republican nominee and his opponent, Hillary Clinton, have run op-eds in Deseret News, the influential daily newspaper owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Trump, whose electoral confidence can be felled by neither polls nor journalists nor the president of the United States, was brought down by the Beehive State: “We’re having a tremendous problem in Utah,” he said during a recent speech to evangelical pastors in Florida. “It could cost us the Supreme Court.” Meanwhile, as many anti-Trump Republicans seem resigned to their fate this November, only one conservative politician has actually launched a quixotic run as a Trump alternative: Evan McMullin, a Mormon, Brigham Young University grad who hails from Provo.

How has this sparsely populated, deep-red Western state become the object of desire for a Democrat, the source of the humiliation of America’s most confident man, and the potential site of Never Trump’s last stand? In an election that has defied conventional wisdom, Utah has become a symbol of conventional American identity: religiously conservative, family-oriented, and equally committed to traditional American values and freedom for minority groups. While winning the state won’t help either major-party nominee—let alone McMullin—win the White House, the candidates are after moral rather than electoral victory out west. Utah’s Mormon voters are a near-perfect symbol of conservative American patriotism. And that’s an association both major-party candidates are hungry to win.

The idea that a Republican candidate for president could have a “Mormon problem,” as many headlines and Trump himself have alleged, is remarkable—and not just because an estimated 70 percent of LDS voters lean right. For at least their first hundred years as a religious group, Mormons were largely regarded by their fellow countrymen as foreigners and threats. The history of Mormon persecution in the United States may be unsettling for those who aren’t familiar with it: The governor of Missouri once ordered the extermination of all Mormons in the state. The Church’s founder, Joseph Smith, was murdered by a mob in 1844. The group was involved in multiple wars with neighboring settlers and the United States government, started and stoked by fears of its religious teachings.

But gradually, Americans got more used to the idea of Mormons, particularly after the Church put an end to the practice of polygamy and Utah was admitted to the U.S. as a state at the end of the 19th century. By the mid-20th century, a Mormon man, Ezra Taft Benson, simultaneously served as Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture and part of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, the main governing body of the LDS Church. In 1968, a prominent Mormon businessman, George Romney, ran for president of the United States, and even though he didn’t beat out Richard Nixon for the nomination, he got tapped to be his former opponent’s secretary of housing and urban development. Around this time, “observers agree that Mormons received unprecedented positive press,” wrote the Brigham Young University professor J.B. Haws in his 2013 book, The Mormon Image in the American Mind. “Mormons had so successfully shed the ‘pariah’ label that, instead of painting them as a threat or a menace, national reporters characterized Latter-day Saints as upstanding, moral, and patriotic people—and, if anything, a little quaint.” During Romney’s presidential run, few reporters focused on his identity as a Mormon, Haws found.

When Mitt Romney ran for president in 2012, though, this certainly wasn’t the case; most Americans seemed either amused or bemused by his faith. The stage show The Book of Mormon, which satirizes the LDS Church, had recently opened to acclaim; The New York Times Style section even ran a piece on what it means to be a “hip” Mormon. Yet, party officials and members of the media wondered widely at the time whether Romney would have a “religion problem,” finding himself unable to attract conservative evangelicals who were skeptical of the LDS Church. According to Pew research, roughly one-fifth of American voters said they were uncomfortable with Romney’s faith, and half either didn’t know or didn’t believe that Mormonism is a Christian religion.

“Maybe 2012 did help us solve the Mormon problem.”

Romney ended up losing his bid for the White House based on the larger racial and age-based deficiencies of his coalition, not because other religious conservatives refused to vote for a Mormon. Even though he lost the election, perhaps he accomplished something else. “Maybe 2012 did help us solve the Mormon problem,” said Max Perry Mueller, a professor at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. “They aren’t an ‘other’ anymore, and that’s what’s amazing.” Trump’s own rhetoric may be a blunt instrument for measuring which groups have become “normal” by putative white, middle-class American standards: While he hasn’t hesitated to toss out insults about Hispanics, Asians, Muslims, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jews, and the disabled, he has praised and pleaded with Mormons for their votes.

Mormons, however, seem to view Trump with mixed regard. An August survey from Public Policy Polling shows him with a clear lead over Clinton among likely voters, but only a low 31 percent approval rating. Third-party candidates are doing relatively well in the state compared to the rest of the country: 12 percent of voters said they’d support Gary Johnson, and 9 percent said the same of their state’s own candidate, Evan McMullin. (The survey came out only 15 days after he officially entered the race.)

For its part, the institutional church has been unusually vocal during this election cycle, even though it claims to be formally “neutral in regard to party politics and election campaigns.” Last December, it put out a statement affirming the LDS Church’s commitment to religious freedom for all groups in the United States, presumably in reaction to increasingly loud calls for a Muslim ban from Republican presidential candidates, egged along by Trump. This has long been part of the Mormon tradition: When Nauvoo became a predominantly Mormon city in the 1840s, its leaders declared that “Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Latter-day Saints, Quakers, Episcopals, Universalists, Unitarians, Mohammedans [Muslims], and all other religious sects and denominations whatever, shall have free toleration, and equal privileges in this city.”

In August, Deseret News, the influential Mormon publication run by the Church, issued an editorial opposing the way the website Breitbart characterized its position on immigration; given Breitbart’s close ties to Trump, the piece was effectively pushback against the campaign. Meanwhile, a Mormon Harvard professor, David Holland, wrote an editorial in the Deseret News condemning Trump for “his inwardly looking nativism” and “his crass playboy persona.” Holland is not just any anti-Trump professor, though: He is the son of Jeffrey R. Holland, a member of the Quorum of Twelve, and has also served as a leader in local LDS stakes, or groups of churches.

Even though some Mormons might be happy Trump supporters, those who aren’t, and who are perhaps taking signals from the Church, are left with a dilemma: Who should they vote for? Despite the efforts of LDS Dems, a pro-Democratic organization in Utah, to mobilize voters around what they call Clinton’s pro-family policies, it doesn’t seem likely that she’ll be able to take the state, almost certainly in part because of her support for abortion. At least some Mormons might be considering protest votes: casting their ballots for candidates who probably can’t win because they find the major-party options unacceptable.

In 1844, Joseph Smith himself decided to run for the presidency.

At least, that’s what McMullin is hoping. “Utah is important to us. We expect to prevail there,” he said in an interview. Although his campaign is considering a number of electoral paths, he suggested loosely, the most viable seems to be whittling down each candidate’s vote tallies. “We hope to deny both Hillary and Donald a majority in the electoral college; then it will go to the House,” which decides presidential elections when no candidate wins a majority of electoral-college votes, he said.

McMullin would need an electoral miracle to gain enough traction for that to happen, although if he could pull off a highly unlikely win in any state, it’s probably Utah. What’s most interesting about McMullin is not the way he’ll affect the electoral map, but what he stands for: Like Mitt Romney and other Mormon Republicans who have been reticent about Trump, he seems to see this election in idealistic, rather than straightforwardly pragmatic, terms. “There’s a strong part of the LDS faith that is focused on service: Service to other people, service to your family, service to the people in your community, service to your country,” he said. “I think it’s very, very important that someone stand up at this time to advocate against [Trump’s] rhetoric and for a more positive, unifying tone in this country. And seeing that no one else was going to step forward and do it at this stage in the process, I felt that was something I needed to do.”

He isn’t the first Mormon who has stepped into presidential politics to make a point. In 1844, Joseph Smith himself decided to run for the presidency, citing the poor treatment of Mormons in Missouri and the seeming lack of commitment to religious freedom for minority groups from members of the federal government. His platform included calls to improve the quality of life in prisons, create a national bank, and end slavery by paying slaveholders for each freed man out of Congress members’ salaries. Smith was assassinated before the election took place, and while it seems unlikely that the leader of an unpopular religious minority would have prevailed, who knows: Another dark-horse candidate, the Tennessean James K. Polk, ended up beating out two establishment politicians, Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay, that year.

McMullin sees his candidacy partly in spiritual terms. While he did not receive a revelation from God that he should run, he said, “I did pray about the decision a lot.” He talked his decision over with friends and family, but “no matter how hard I tried to get to a full answer from those conversations, I wasn’t going to get there. It was a decision I had to make on my own and in consultation with Heavenly Father.”

But while he says his decision to run was a religious one, he also sees it as patriotic. As a group, Mormons tend to be deeply committed to displays of American loyalty; every summer at the annual reenactment of the Book of Mormon in Palmyra, New York, for example, a mammoth American flag waves over the pageant. The Book of Mormon literally relocates the story of Jesus to the Americas; the story of his appearance in the New World after his resurrection adds specialness to America’s role in God’s plan. This deep connection Mormons feel to their country may have shaped the group’s image as representatives of the “real America.”

“Utah is a symbol for America.”

“They have, in some ways, become the stand-ins for Americans, and especially white, traditional, ‘values’ Americans,” said Mueller. This may be why the “problem in Utah” seems to bother Trump more than, say, the fact that his support is slipping in deep-red Georgia. “He viscerally gets that the fact that the Mormons aren’t lining up behind him. He feels [this] represents that he isn’t tapping into something that is true about America,” Mueller said.

This also helps explain why Clinton’s eyes would twinkle to think of winning Utah. Spending effort on outreach and editorials in a state where she recently won a 23 percent favorability rating seems a little bizarre. “Clinton is most likely going to win, and if the election were held today, she is going to win handily. So why spend her effort on Utah?” said Mueller. For example, “it would be better to trounce [Trump] by another five points in Pennsylvania,” which will likely continue to be a swing state in elections to come, he pointed out.

But the politics of Utah aren’t really about numbers. As Mueller put it, “Utah is a symbol for America.” Both candidates have earned historically low approval ratings this election cycle. A significant portion of voters seem to be dissatisfied by their options, perhaps alienated by what they see as rampant dishonesty and bigotry in the campaigns. The Mormons of Utah offer a chance at redemption in a year of American self-disgust. Their votes might not bring candidates victory, but at least they will offer some comfort that the real America was on their side.

* This article originally stated that Utah has four Electoral College votes. We regret the error.