Donald Trump has a Mormon problem, and he is going to lose the Utah primary because of it.
Trump is polling far below Ted Cruz and John Kasich in Utah, a state that is more than two-thirds Mormon. Mormon voters in Wyoming and Idaho — the states with the second and third largest percentages of Mormons — have already rejected Trump and have awarded their delegates to Cruz.
There are a number of clear reasons why Mormons will not support Trump’s candidacy. Members of the Church of Latter-day Saints are typically very socially and culturally conservative, so it’s not surprising that they dislike the candidate who was once pro-choice, who has defended Planned Parenthood, and who has not laid out a clear opposition to same-sex marriage.
“Trump, both in his private life and his public persona — his crassness, his affairs — all of that kind of thing offends Mormon sensibilities,” said Matt Bowman, an associate professor of history at Henderson State University and the author of The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith. “Mormons place a high premium on being nice, and Trump is not nice.”
Mormons also have a deep memory of religious persecution, and Trump’s Islamophobia, bigotry, and rejection of Muslims is “certainly something Mormons find distasteful,” Bowman told ThinkProgress.
There’s also a class issue at play in Mormons’ rejection of Trump. “Mormons generally tend to be better educated than average Americans, their income tends to be higher, and it’s widely known that that’s precisely the opposite of Trump’s demographic.”
Those reasons will cost Trump the primary in Utah, and they could also cost him the general election. A recent poll found that Utah voters would elect a Democrat for president for the first time in more than 50 years if Trump is the Republican nominee. The poll found that to be true, whether Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders secures the Democratic nomination.
But the results of that poll have wider implications than just Mormons’ rejection of Trump.
Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins, who is Mormon and wrote about why Mormons dislike Trump, said that “Mormons make up the most reliably Republican religious group.” But Bowman said that has not always been true, and it’s changing. Mormons are becoming less conservative and the church is growing less partisan. As the religion becomes more and more diverse and global, its members are becoming less solidly Republican.
While Utah becomes less Mormon and less Republican, Mormons are also transitioning away from being a heavily homogeneous religion centered in the American West to a more global group, with members of various nationalities.
“The church is now majority outside the United States,” Bowman said. “In a decade or two, Spanish will be the first language of the Mormon world, rather than English. So as that is happening, the church leadership has worked to distance itself from American partisan politics.”
In the mid-twentieth century, the church was far more involved in partisan politics than it is today, Bowman said. The institution has actively tried to shake the perception that its members are solidly Republican, and its leaders have spoken out about how Mormons can belong to any political party they choose.
That shift has also occurred as the religion has taken issue with the Republican Party’s stance on issues like the environment and immigration. “Both of which, the church has embraced officially more of the progressive opinions than Republican Party orthodoxy,” Bowman said.
More than 1.3 million Mormons live in Mexico, up from just 240,000 in the 1980s. Largely because of the exchange between Mormons in America and in Mexico, church leaders have supported more open borders and better treatment of immigrants in the United States.
On climate change, Mormons align more closely with the Pope than the Republican Party. While the church has not specifically taken a stance on the issue, caring for the earth is a moral and spiritual issue for its members.
Those two issues are crucial for many of the church’s new, diverse members, and Bowman said that Clinton or Sanders’ win in Utah the general election would not just be a Trump-inspired fluke.
“In some way, I would not be surprised if some Mormon leaders would be delighted if the Democrat won Utah because it would indicate that their religion is less homogeneous than it is perceived, and that’s been a big big hope of theirs for a long time.”
Five Thirty Eight gives Cruz a 98 percent chance of winning the Utah primary. His socially conservative values appeal to Mormons, many of whom do not see a path to the nomination for Kasich. But Bowman noted that Kasich “is more popular among Mormon intelligentsia and the leadership class” than Cruz. Before he dropped out, Marco Rubio — who has Mormon roots — was the most popular GOP candidate among Mormons.
“Mormons tend to like candidates who appear very polished, very affable, kind of mainstream that way,” he said. “Rubio I think had much more of that than Cruz does, so Rubio was far ahead in Utah, back when he was still viable.”