The Peculiar Mormon Vote

The Mormon Moment refuses to die.

This morning we woke to news that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are currently polled to split the Utah Vote at 26% each. This comes in the wake of the LDS-owned newspaper Deseret News printing a nearly-unprecedented op-ed calling for Trump to resign in light of recently released audio of him bragging about sexually assaulting women. A score of elected GOP officials in the state have similarly rescinded support for their party’s nominee. For one of the most Republican states in the nation, that is news enough. Max Mueller and McKay Coppins have written about Trump’s “Mormon problem,” which I believe is mostly rooted in the LDS tradition’s conflation of character and principles: while Evangelicals, it seems, have largely been willing to overlook Trump’s personality problems as long as he reaffirms a commitment to a certain matrix of policies, Mormons aren’t as willing to make the same compromise. Max quoted me in brief in his essay, but here was my longer answer to his question (which I hurriedly wrote on my phone while at an event, so it’s a miracle he could even salvage one sentence):

The Book of Mormon emphasizes the importance of righteous leaders, and so members are the faith have long believed that heads of state should represent the values of a righteous nation. This commitment can often be fungible, of course, due to the nature of partisan politics and the monopoly the Republican Party currently holds over American Mormons. But Utah’s hesitancy toward Trump demonstrates that they’re not fully committed to policies over character. The Church’s attachment to the Republican Party was largely centered on the conservative values of the religious right in the wake of the culture wars, so as long as Republicans supported those ethics they could mostly escape censure on other, more questionable, opinions. Opposing immigration, distrusting minorities, and trumpeting patriarchal values fit into that narrative, for instance, but directly disparaging family values rooted in white, middle-class ideals will likely prove a step too far.

But enough about Mormonism’s opposition to Trump.

What is more striking about this recent round of Utah polling, I think, is the leap made by third-party candidate Evan McMullin in Utah’s polls. A BYU alum who is a former CIA operative, investment banker, and policy director for the GOP, McMullin started his long-shot campaign with zero name recognition and based his run primarily on a principled stand against the two mainstream party’s candidates. He has never claimed a hope to gain 271 electoral college votes, but rather made clear that his goal is to win at least one state, keep Clinton and Trump from winning outright, and then lobby for the House of Representatives to choose him over the two “undesirable” nominees. It’s a pipe dream, of course, but it is most optimistically seen as a principled protest vote for those who cannot stomach voting for candidates they find revolting. (A lot has been written on the Mormon revulsion to Trump, but an equal amount of words can be spent talking about their similar hatred for the Clintons.) Even while Libertarian candidate and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson is a more viable option, Mormons are especially drawn to the protest candidate who better embodies their religious and ideological ideals. One meme that has been frequenting Mormon social media, and has mostly been debunked, is a past Mormon prophet Ezra Taft Benson saying that a “vote for the lesser of two evils” is “still voting for evil.” Even if they don’t know much else about McMullin and his policies, they know this: he represents Mormon values. He is a Mormon, after all.

Protest candidates are not new for Mormons. Their founder, Joseph Smith, ran a quixotic presidential campaign in 1844 which many scholars see as a “protest” candidacy. But even more common for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been a commitment to voting as a group for the candidate who they believe represents their best values. They believe America to be a chosen, divine nation, so they believe its leaders should best represent those spiritual principles. In the Nauvoo years this meant bloc voting. In the Utah years this meant establishing their own political operation, the People’s Party. As a result, one could count on the “Mormon vote” going one particular direction throughout the nineteenth century. (And as I wrote about last week, this played into public perceptions about the “church broke” Mormon politicians.)

As part of the compromises the LDS Church made to become part of the American political body at the turn of the twentieth century, the People’s Party disappeared and the Mormons embraced the two-party system. (There were even a string of pamphlets and a vibrant public debate over “Why the Mormons should vote Democrat” or “Why the Mormons should vote Republican.”) But as the decades evolved, Utah’s vote transitioned as well. While the state voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt all four times he was on the ballot—and in those latter years, against the explicit counsel of LDS leadership—after World War II, and especially following the culture wars, the “Mormon vote” became more or less synonymous with the “Republican Vote.” This was primarily due to a vocal LDS leadership who echoed anti-communistic policies and anti-liberal social ideas, but it was also rooted the demographic make-up of Utah that positioned them with similar states in the post-war era. Pew polling from the past year revealed Mormons to be the most Republican religion in the nation. That is what makes their opposition to Trump so remarkable.

This is mostly likely a historical blip. If the GOP had nominated any of the other seventeen potential candidates who squared-off against each other in the primaries, it’s likely the Republican nominee would defeat Clinton by a very sizable margin. In four years, if the party recovers from Trump and nominates someone more in line with mainstream values and interests, Utah will likely return to being a deeply red state. The fact that Utah is just as likely to vote for McMullin, who has hardly any chance in any other state, rather than Clinton, who has the best chance to defeat Trump, is indicative. As much as I’d love to see Mormonism cultivate the radical progressive roots that are mostly latent in the tradition, it’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

However. What the opposition to Trump demonstrates is that the Mormon vote can be, in unique and perhaps drastic circumstances, divorced from the Republican vote. It may happen rarely, but it’s possible. And the fact that there is a solid chance that Utah might vote for McMullin as opposed to the more established third-party candidate, Johnson, indicates that the peculiarities of the Mormon vote are still somewhat unmatched in the rest of the American political body.

Just like Trump, the “Mormon vote” has now demonstrated its ability to be decoupled from the Republican establishment. With the ramifications of the 2016 election for the party still far from predictable, this might be a trend worth following.

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