Utah and the Conservative Schism

By Maggie Beazer '20

Four weeks before the 2016 Presidential election, the polling website FiveThirtyEight ran an article titled “How Evan McMullin Could Win Utah and the Presidency.” It was a blip on the radar in a tumultuous week that included the leak of the 2005 video that showed Donald Trump making lewd comments about women. McMullin’s candidacy came late in the game – he only announced his presidential run on August 8, 2016, and in the intervening two months, he became a respectable third-party candidate. By the time of the election, McMullin had gained enough support to appear on the ballot in eleven states, but his support was never more substantial than in the birthplace of his campaign: Utah.

The search for a candidate like McMullin began over the summer, as the Primaries drew to a close and Republicans realized that the unprecedented momentum behind Trump’s “political outsider” campaign had pushed him to the nomination. The more traditionally conservative establishment sought desperately for a viable candidate that could appease voters both wary of Clinton’s sometimes-murky political record and disgusted by Trump’s personal failings. Though he had never held office, McMullin fit the bill: a former CIA operative, he had advised Republicans in the U.S. House on national security issues. However, what most endeared McMullin to many of his supporters was his background. Born in Provo, Utah, he graduated from Brigham Young University and identifies as a practicing Mormon.

McMullin’s political stances clearly exposed the distance between Clinton and Trump’s philosophies. More pragmatically conservative than Trump, he nonetheless adhered to traditional Republican policies like opposing abortion. In other ways, McMullin walks a careful centrist-conservative line. He believes in “traditional marriage” but supported the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, commenting that he thinks it’s “time to move on” from the issue of same-sex marriage. McMullin supports increased border security but opposes mass deportations, supports certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act while decrying “Obamacare” as a whole. Though his status as a third-party candidate entering the presidential race late denied him any widespread success on November 8, McMullin’s lingering relevance as a conservative voice post-election shows that his message must be reaching some audience. Which brings about the question: who are the people who voted for such an unlikely candidate – and why?

McMullin’s moderated conservatism and Mormon faith bring about inevitable comparisons to Mitt Romney. In 2012, Romney won Utah with 72.8% of the vote, an unheard-of majority for even the most staunchly Republican of states. No other state came close to amassing as much support for the former Massachusetts governor. He was Utah’s ideal candidate – a clean-cut, educated man with strong family values, a man with political experience and ties to the state. A man who shared their faith. McMullin came closest to victory in Utah and collected 21.0% of its presidential vote. Not since Ross Perot in 1992 had a third-party candidate performed so well in a state. McMullin received substantial votes in other states that had overwhelmingly supported Romney – most notably, Idaho, where 23% of residents identify as LDS/Mormon, more than any other single religion

Utah has long been noted for its failure to separate the spiritual from the political. A 1993 Los Angeles Times article remarked, “If Utah is not the theocracy envisioned by pioneer leader Brigham Young and other early Mormons, neither has its government shed a perception that has endured since statehood—that the state’s true seat of power is the Church Administration Building at the bottom of Capitol Hill.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially abstains from supporting any politician or political party, but ballot measures don’t receive this level of detachment. The word Republican won’t appear in any communications from Church leadership to members, but after the Church donated more than $25 million in support of California’s Proposition 8, the religious group that constitutes over 62% of Utah’s population was left with little doubt as to which party’s platforms they should support.

Utah’s Republican loyalty runs deep. The last time Utah sided with the Democrats’ Presidential nominee was in 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson was elected. Since 2000, the Republican nominee never failed to gain a majority of the Utah vote – at least, not until Donald Trump. For the Utah conservatives that belonged to the Mormon faith, Trump’s nomination caused hesitation, if not a course correction. Due to their history as a persecuted religious minority, Mormons theoretically oppose measures to curtail Muslim immigration. The video that showed Donald Trump seemingly admitting to marital infidelity jarred Mormon sensibilities. Sure, Hillary Clinton was shrill and untrustworthy, but was Donald Trump really a man who could be trusted to lead the country? For those who could not be persuaded to pick between “the lesser of two evils,” McMullin was a welcome way out, an alternative that didn’t involve betraying a “Never Democrat” code or voting for someone utterly contrary to the Romney political model.

Though McMullin’s stint as presidential underdog is over, his relative third-party success has intriguing ramifications for the future of American politics. McMullin voters and Trump voters could just as easily be called Mormon conservatives and Evangelical conservatives. These broad distinctions suggest other divides in the Republican Party – Western conservatives vs. Southern conservatives, white collar vs. blue collar, smooth and buttoned-up oratory vs. strident and brazen rhetoric. The votes for McMullin in Utah also exposed an openness among Mormon voters to abandon party lines. As the current Republican Party turns ever more radical, the more centrist “Utah Republican” voters that feel alienated could be swayed away from their traditional ticket – something for moderate Democrats to keep in mind as their party undergoes its own fragmentation.