There was a brief moment when it seemed Mormon voters in Utah were leading the anti-Trump charge in today’s GOP. After the leaked video of Donald Trump bragging about groping women, a number of Utah’s leading elected officials unendorsed the GOP nominee. The LDS-owned Deseret News published an editorial asking Trump to step aside. Pundits were quick to point out Trump’s “Mormon Problem” in the state. There seemed to be a perfect storm for something radical to happen, given that there was an independent candidate who was both conservative and Mormon—the perfect recipe for splitting the state’s ticket. I mused on the flexibility of the Mormon vote. Some pro-Trump figures warned of a “Mormon Mafia.” One white nationalist accused McMullin, the independent candidate, of being a closeted homosexual. Those were exciting times.
It appears that brief moment of tumult has come to an end. Recent polls in Utah show Trump once again taking a commanding lead in the state, with McMullin falling back to a distant third. The state’s quasi-toss-up status seems gone. The state’s opportunity to break from both the recent past and foreseeable future now seems a whimsical memory.
A lot of this is what pundits expected to happen, and it’s part of a larger story: given the partisan nature of today’s political culture, Clinton’s large lead was unsustainable. Eventually, Republican voters were going to come back to their party’s nominee, making it a close election. (And it doesn’t help that our nation’s #ADD mindset meant that we forgot Trump’s massive failings at the sheer hint of conspiratorial email findings; seriously, our media is no better than the dog from Up.) But the evolution of Utah’s vote also had to do with a concerted effort on the part of the state’s GOP coalition to rally support for their nominee. Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence made an important campaign stop—when was the last time a GOP presidential ticket visited Utah in late-October?—and held a rally that included emeritus General Authority Robert Oaks (formerly of one of the LDS Church’s leading councils, the Presidency of the Seventy) as well as Julie Beck, who served as the leader of the Church’s women’s organization from 2007 until 2012. And in the political realm, Jason Chaffetz showed his true colors by endorsing-but-not-endorsing the GOP nominee.
So it doesn’t seem Tuesday will be much in doubt for Republicans in Utah. But what does this episode say about Mormonism’s political tradition, something that remains consistently fascinating?
First, it shows that moral issues, on their own, are not enough to break Utah Mormons away from the GOP’s stronghold. Hopes that the Mormon body could be differentiated from the conservative Evangelical movement that have lined up behind Trump were premature. A nominee who boasts about sexual assault is not the line in the sand. The state’s flirtation with McMullin’s candidacy was enough to see that there are indeed some kernels of potential there, but they need more nurturing to actually flower into something tangible.
Second, I think it matters that no prominent LDS leader came out in support of a non-Trump option. Conversely, one of the most prominent female leaders came out in support of Trump. If nothing else, Beck’s presence at the Trump rally was a sign that you could be considered a “good Mormon” and still support a depraved candidate. Voting for Trump was no longer seen as an immoral option, which paved the way for Utah Republicans to “come home” to their party. Not only does this very limited perception of hierarchical support hold sway for many, but the lack of support in another direction left competing choices rudderless. An independent Mormon vote would require direction, organization, and mobilization, led either by ecclesiastical leaders or at least someone with enough cultural capital to drive Mormon allegiance. (And that obviously isn’t Glenn Beck.)
Third, as difficult as it is to break Mormon support to the GOP, it is near-impossible to forge Mormon support for the Democratic Party. This especially seems to be the case for Hillary Clinton, someone who appears particularly odious to a number of Utah Republicans for a variety of (rational and irrational) reasons. In an alternate universe we might have seen what would have happened in a presidential race with a Democratic candidate who could have taken advantages of Trump’s weaknesses (like Bernie Sanders), but I suppose it would have taken a lot to get Utahns to vote for a progressive ticket. Mormons require something to rally around rather than just against.
In short, the unique Mormon vote, a body which can theoretically be separated from the GOP platform, still remains fallow. Mormon voters in Utah are too entrenched in the social, cultural, and demographic foundations of the Republican mainstream to rock the boat. What is clear is it would require exceptionally radical circumstances, most likely intervention from leading Mormon figures, to create an independent bloc. And without that authoritative—even, prophetic—disruption, things fall back to the status quo.