The surprise religious group that could decide Trump's fateSeptember 13, 2020
In 2016, Mormons rejected Donald Trump in numbers unheard of for a Republican nominee — viewing the thrice-married, immigrant-bashing Republican as an affront to their values.
In 2020, the president is going all-out to change their minds — a little-noticed effort that could make or break him in Arizona and Nevada, home to more than a half-million Latter-day Saints combined. Joe Biden's campaign, sensing an unlikely opening for a Democrat, is also targeting Mormons in the pair of Western swing states.
Before Trump became the party standard bearer, Mormons had been among the most loyal GOP voters in the country. A 2010 Gallup survey found that “Mormons are both the most Republican and the most conservative of any of the major religious groups in the U.S. today.” But many Mormons found Trump blasphemous, and the Church itself made thinly veiled statements condemning the candidate’s rhetoric on immigration and religious freedom.
Mormon support for the Republican ticket dropped from 80 percent in 2004 and 78 percent in 2012, to 61 percent in 2016, even as most other Christians moved further to the right, according to Pew.
“I do think Trump in 2016 — there were questions among not just Mormons, but other communities of faith,” Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, who is LDS, said in an interview.
If Trump can reach the level of support among Arizona’s 400,000-plus church members that earlier Republican nominees enjoyed, it would be worth tens of thousands of voters and a few extra points in the toss-up state.
“I think Mormons especially start looking at him as a different type of candidate than they did in 2016 because now he has a record,” McDaniel said, citing the president's stances on abortion and religious liberty. The Trump campaign added that it sees a potential LDS backlash against Democrats, given that church gatherings faced tougher lockdown restrictions than many other gathering places in some Democratic states.
Mindful of the community's sway, the Trump and Biden campaigns are vying for the Mormon vote to an extent neither party has done in a generation.
Trump dispatched Vice President Mike Pence to Mesa, Ariz. last month for the kickoff of “Latter-day Saints for Trump.” The president’s campaign is planning more events in the coming weeks with prominent Mormons, including former Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer, Utah Sen. Mike Lee, and McDaniel. The campaign and Republican National Committee have scheduled trips to Arizona for out-of-state Mormons to canvass fellow church members for votes. On Saturday, Trump traveled to Nevada — a state that Democrats had been confident was in their column — and he will be in Arizona this week.
Biden’s campaign has rolled out its own prominent Mormon supporters, led by former Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a longtime Trump critic who said he believes Biden will “approach the constitutional role [of president] with the reverence and dignity it deserves.” The campaign is also prepping LDS volunteers to make calls to Mormon-heavy areas seeking support for Biden.
Some Mormons in Arizona have formed their own political action committee, earnestly named: “Arizona Republicans Who Believe In Treating Others With Respect.” The most prominent Mormon politician in the country, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), has said he will not vote for Trump, though he has not endorsed Biden.
Biden’s advisers argue that his message of restoring civility will appeal to LDS members who, like Romney and Flake, are offended by Trump’s conduct over the past four years.
“I don't understand how a member of the LDS Church could support somebody that is amoral and has shown his amorality from the time he came into our view,” former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada and member of the church, said in an interview.
Trump’s campaign is hoping that more Mormons have gone the way of Lee and right-wing radio host Glenn Beck — former critics who’ve come to support Trump.
In 2016, Democrats did not appear to convert many of the Mormons who voted against Trump. Some stayed home, while many others cast a protest vote for the conservative LDS third-party candidate, Evan McMullin, who earned 21 percent of Utah’s vote. McMullin also received about 7 percent in neighboring Idaho, but his support in Arizona was negligible because he was not listed on the ballot and was only a write-in candidate.
Without McMullin in the race, and with turnout expected to exceed 2016, both parties see a rare group of potentially persuadable voters at a very unpersuadable time.
“Not having the third party ticket with Evan McMullin will help give us an opportunity to pull some of those voters into the Trump camp,” McDaniel, who is Romney’s niece, said.
McMullin, who still opposes Trump, said he thinks some of his supporters will vote for the president but that “most people who voted third party in 2016 will be supporting Biden in this election.” He argued that some Republicans voted for Trump “out of habit” but have since soured on him.
A Biden official conceded that Trump will likely improve on his 2016 performance among Mormons, but that the Democrat's goal is to significantly limit those gains. Some longtime LDS Democratic organizers said Biden has already improved on Hillary Clinton’s efforts, which they said were too focused on Utah.
“The Biden campaign seems much more aware of the Latter-day Saint diaspora in the Mountain West and the Atlantic South,” said Rob Taber, a national co-chair of Latter-day Saint Democrats of America.
"It’s not going to be shocking that Trump wins the Mormon vote but if it’s 10-15 points off of the norm in Nevada and Arizona, that’s a big deal," said Quin Monson, a partner at the Utah-based polling firm Y2 Analytics and a political science professor at the Church-funded Brigham Young University. "It’s the equivalent of Republicans suddenly getting a quarter of the African-American vote, and I do think it’s within the realm of possibility. They've not come around completely on Donald Trump."
So far, the Trump campaign appears to be dedicating more of their candidates’ time to courting Mormon voters. While Pence visited Arizona, there are no plans for Biden or his running mate Kamala Harris to participate in a Mormon-oriented event. Biden’s advisers believe that his Catholicism could also appeal to LDS voters, but the campaign isn’t airing ads in Arizona focusing on his religion.
Trump is trailing Biden by about 5 points in Arizona, according to polling averages, and LDS voters could be decisive if the race tightens. In 2018, Kyrsten Sinema won massive Maricopa County — which includes the historically Mormon suburb of Mesa — becoming the first Democrat to win an Arizona Senate seat since the 1980s.
Trump's campaign advisers have said they don't see Maricopa County as a must-win; instead, they’re looking to run up the president’s margins in rural Arizona. The LDS enclaves in the White Mountains will be key to that effort.
The public embrace of Trump by some LDS members has created fissures in a community that was once largely monolithic in its politics. Former Arizona state senator Bob Worsley, a Republican and the founder of SkyMall, recently began publicly organizing for Biden after he felt the Trump-aligned LDS group that hosted Pence last month implied that Church leadership supported the president.
“I’ve never voted for a Democrat in my life but we think this man is an abomination,” Worsley said. He thinks more Mormons will vote for Biden than in 2016 because “some found Hillary’s husband Bill a similar lack of an example of a good moral person.”
The Church’s leadership, which members watch closely for political signals, has strained to stay neutral in the race even as it continues to push back against Trump on immigration. In 2018, the church protested the administration’s policies that resulted in the separation of families at the border.
“We are deeply troubled by the aggressive and insensitive treatment of these families,” it said at the time.
Biden's campaign hopes Trump’s record on immigration will push LDS voters, including the many Hispanics who have joined the Church in recent years, toward the Democrat. The campaign is building up an LDS volunteer program, utilizing members of the church who support Biden to reach out to fellow Mormon friends and neighbors.
“At the end of the day, President Trump more reflects the policy values of most Mormons than Joe Biden,” said Mike Noble, partner and chief of research for Phoenix-based OH Predictive Insights polling firm. But Trump would be "mistaken" to think he has a lock on LDS voters, he added.
“Whether they can stomach his erratic behavior," Noble said, "will likely be the deciding factor for many Mormons.”