Trump’s Mormon problem just got a lot worse.
On Monday morning, BuzzFeed reported that devotees of the Republican “anti-Trump” movement were finally launching their own independent presidential campaign, choosing Evan McMullin as their pick to battle Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton for the White House.
Analysts immediately responded with a collective “huh?” of confusion. McMullin is, by all accounts, the longest of shots to win the presidency come November. A relative unknown, he spent most of his career as a CIA officer before taking a short-term job at Goldman Sachs. He then moved to Washington, D.C., to work as chief policy director for the House Republican conference before beginning his unlikely bid for the White House. It’s a solid job resume in Capitol Hill, but hardly the kind of pedigree expected of those who seek the Oval Office.
Still, it would be unwise to dismiss McMullin’s candidacy — but not because he can win the country (he almost certainly can’t). Instead, McMullin stands to make a sizable impact in one state in particular: Utah, a state which McMullin reportedly “plans to aggressively contest.”
“It would be unwise to dismiss McMullin’s candidacy — but not because he can win the country (he almost certainly can’t).”
The probable reason for his campaign’s interest in Utah takes a little explanation, but ultimately boils down to religion — namely, Mormonism. McMullin is Mormon, a religion which is intensely overrepresented in Utah, which houses its headquarters in Salt Lake City. He also graduated from Utah’s Brigham Young University — a Mormon school — and served as a Mormon missionary in Brazil, according to his campaign website.
This actually makes McMullin’s challenge to Trump highly unusual, as Mormons — specifically members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) — are the most reliably Republican religious group in the country.
Yet Trump, for all his unexpected success among white evangelical Protestant Christians, has performed abysmally with LDS members like McMullin— especially in the Beehive State. Not only did he place third in Utah’s GOP primary (he garnered just 14 percent, whereas winner Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won with 69 percent), but Mormon politicians have actively decried Trump and his policies during the general election. In May, former Utah senator Bob Bennett rebuked Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric from his deathbed, asking his family if he could speak to any Muslims in the hospital so he could “apologize to them on behalf of the Republican Party for Donald Trump.” Utah’s governor also condemned Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration into the United States, as did the leadership of the LDS church — a rare move for a religious body that often steers clear of making firm statements about presidential candidates.
Even America’s most prominent Mormon politician —former Massachusetts governor and 2012 GOP presidential nominee and Mitt Romney — refused to back the Donald, saying in June that a Trump presidency would result in “trickle down racism.”
“Yet Trump, for all his unexpected success among evangelical Protestant Christians, has performed abysmally with LDS members like McMullin — especially in the Beehive state.”
There are several possible explanations for the Mormon rejection of Trump, including the fact that the federal government once floated banning foreign Mormon converts from entering the country — much like Trump has done for Muslims. Regardless, the result is a very real problem for the GOP nominee: Although some polls have Trump leading Clinton in Utah, a Hinckley Institute-Salt Lake Tribune poll released in June show the two in a statistical tie.
Granted, another poll has Trump up by 12 points. But even that is far less of a partisan gap than in previous years, and the picture gets more complicated when you realize that full 16 percent of Utah voters are also backing Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s candidate for president.
Enter McMullin, a Mormon conservative who, like many of his Mormon brethren, has a more moderate stance on issues such as immigration. More importantly, he has vehemently rejected Trump and his rhetoric. In his announcement letter, he referred to the business mogul as “a real threat to our Republic,” who has “obvious personal instability,” adding that Americans “cannot and must not elect him.” He voiced similar opposition to Trump’s ideas in a tweet in March.
The ideas of @realDonaldTrump would deny Americans of all races, religions, and nationalities their right to pursue and obtain happiness.
— Evan McMullin (@Evan_McMullin) March 3, 2016
This makes McMullin particularly well suited to cleave away conservative Mormon votes from Trump in Utah, especially given how many are already embracing a third-party candidate. The combined candidacies of Trump, Johnson, and McMullin could easily split the remaining Republican electorate, leaving Clinton with an unusual chance to cobble together just enough to achieve a plurality — thus winning Utah’s six electoral votes.
It remains to be seen how good McMullin is on the campaign trail, or whether his profile will ever rise high enough to offer Utah Mormons a viable choice that isn’t Trump, Clinton, or Johnson. It’s also not clear whether Johnson will hold on to his supporters, or if he and McMullin will simply split the anti-Trump vote.
Nevertheless, McMullin is finally offering Mormons in Utah and elsewhere the choice of supporting one of their own this year, and that spells bad news for Trump.