Utah has a Republican governor, a Republican state legislature, two Republican U.S. senators and four Republican congressmen. But polls show the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, is still struggling to make inroads there.
Trump’s troubles in Utah became clear during the state’s March primary, when he received just 14 percent of the vote—his smallest share in any of the states that had voted in primaries up to that point, according to Politico. Trump’s popularity in the state remained tenuous as he emerged as the presumptive nominee, and while a recent Utah poll showed Trump leading Democrat Hillary Clinton, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson was surging in his wake.
“He should be in the sixties right now and he’s not,” Quin Monson, a pollster and political science professor at Brigham Young University, said of Trump’s polling numbers.
Political scientists and strategists in the state told TPM they believe Trump will ultimately win there. But that doesn’t change many Utahns’ antipathy toward the nominee, which experts say has its roots in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The legacy of being a minority religious group that was alienated, threatened and driven from their homes is a very strong piece of the modern Mormon identity.
“Mormons believe knowing their history is very important,” said Tim Chambless, an associate professor of political science at the University of Utah. “Mormons know that they had to flee. They were essentially chased out of Ohio, out of Illinois, out of Missouri. They know in 1838 the governor of Missouri ordered an executive order that you could practically murder Mormons on site.”
Trump’s proposals to ban Muslim immigration to the U.S. or suspend the flow of refugees from countries with terrorist ties have sounded alarm bells for many Utahns, even as Republicans have embraced that message in other states.
“Those are not stories that have been lost or forgotten and the church actively promotes thinking of your pioneer heritage. So when Trump talks about a religious minority and suspending their rights, that strikes many people as a problem,” Monson said.
Republican governors across the U.S. issued statements in November refusing to resettle Syrian refugees in their states as a response to terror attacks in Paris—but not Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. Even after three Mormon missionaries were injured in an airport bombing in Brussels in March, Herbert doubled down on welcoming refugees in an NPR interview.
“We don’t want to have terror imported to Utah. But we were just a little bit reluctant to use somebody’s religion as the defining description of who can come into a state and who can come into our country and who cannot,” he said.
Trump has also targeted undocumented immigrants, disparaging Mexican immigrants as being criminals and rapists and suggesting deportation for millions of those who’ve entered the country illegally. But Utah doesn’t follow conservative orthodoxy on this issue, either. It was among the first states in the country to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. It allows undocumented immigrants to receive in-state tuition. And, because the Church encourages mission trips for young adults, Chambless argues Mormons perhaps are more tolerant of immigrants than other conservative voters.
“We have a large number of missionaries in Spanish-speaking countries and we have a large number of lawmakers who speak Spanish because of their missionary experience,” Chambless said.
Trump’s demeanor, from his boastful assertions that “I alone can fix it” to his fixation on poll numbers and his tales of financial success, also runs counter to how the Church calls on its members to conduct themselves. It doesn’t help that former GOP nominee Mitt Romney, who got more than 70 percent of the vote in the state in 2012, gave a high-profile speech warning against Trump, either.
Other high-profile Mormon leaders have joined the pile-on. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) led an effort at the Republican National Convention to unbind delegates, which would have allowed more of them to vote against Trump. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) has publicly expressed concerns about Trump’s proposed Muslim ban and comments about immigrants, earning him a rebuke from Trump in a closed-door meeting earlier this year. Rep. Mia Love (R-UT), a rising party star who had a primetime speaking role at the 2012 convention, went to Israel instead of Cleveland last month.
“Mr. Trump’s lack of respect for other people, be it his competitors, the media or anyone who has criticized him, doesn’t fly in Utah,” said Boyd Matheson, a former top staffer for Lee and president of Utah’s Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank. “We recognize the value that everyone brings to the table and Mr. Trump would rather have everyone believe we are too divided to do anything because that gives him more power.”
Perhaps recognizing an opening, Clinton recently sought to make her own appeal to Utahns, despite the fact that the state has not gone for a Democrat in a presidential election since 1964. She penned an op-ed this week in the Deseret News, which is owned by the Church, making the case that “I’ve been fighting to defend religious freedom for years.”
Trump himself realizes he’s falling short in a state that should be a layup for a Republican presidential candidate. He told an audience of evangelicals at Thursday at an event in Orlando that “Utah is a different place.”
“Is anyone here from Utah? … I didn’t think so. We’re having a problem,” Trump said.
Just hours later, Herbert, Utah’s governor, announced he would support Trump. And Trump has since announced that he, too, plans to place an op-ed in the Deseret News.
Still, experts say Trump is hardly the candidate Mormons were hoping or looking for.
“Utah just doesn’t respond to anger, fear angst and frustration. It is just not what motivates people,” Matheson said.