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.