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How faith will inform Utah voters Tuesday

Donald Trump is polling poorly in Utah, but he’s doing even worse among voters who describe themselves as very active in their faith, reflecting national trends among major religious groups.

When asked who they would vote for if the Republican caucus were today, 10 percent of very religiously active voters in Utah chose Trump, compared with 24 percent among those who say they are somewhat or not active in their religion. Just 13 percent overall said they would vote for Trump, according to a Deseret News/KSL poll conducted by Dan Jones and Associates. The poll was conducted March 8-15 among 400 adults with a +/-4.9 percent margin of error.

The Deseret News and KSL probed religion as part of a broader survey about voter behavior because of the previously documented impact of religion on the political process around the country, particularly in highly religious regions such as the Bible Belt and Utah.

Pollsters and pundits have been puzzled over exit polls indicating high levels of support for Trump among evangelical Christians, and they are now noting divides between the most devout and other members of major faith groups. For example, Barna Group, a Christian polling firm, found that evangelicals who go to church and pray regularly support Ted Cruz over Trump by nearly a 2-1 margin.

The Deseret News/KSL survey finds a similar pattern in Mormon country.

What Utahns want

Jeremy C. Pope, associate professor of political science at BYU and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said it makes sense that a candidate like Trump would struggle among Utah voters, many of whom are active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“He makes his money off of casinos and liquor and strippers. He’s got to have a low ceiling among Mormons, relatively,” he said, adding that other factors, such as voter affluence, may be more important than religious activity when it comes to support for Trump.

Pope also said he doubts that 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s recent anti-Trump speech in Utah had a strong impact on the views of Mormons or Utahns: “What little data I’ve seen suggests that Mormon dislike for Trump predates the speech,” he said.

Similarly, a recent LDS Church statement on civility in politics did not likely move the needle on LDS voters’ opinions, but rather reflected views they already held, Pope said.

The Deseret News/KSL poll also asked about the Democratic caucus. Nearly half (45 percent) of LDS voters in Utah said they would not vote for either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, with 33 percent saying they would choose Sanders and 22 percent saying Clinton. Among non-LDS voters, 56 percent would choose Sanders and 16 would choose Clinton. (Figures for both the Democratic and Republican primaries are based on all voters of both parties.)

When it comes to the personal characteristic voters say is most important in a presidential candidate, a large majority (around 60 percent) of both LDS and non-LDS voters in Utah said honesty and integrity are at the top of the list.

After integrity and honesty, other choices for most important personal characteristic diverges, with the most religiously active voters more likely to choose civility and respect or family values as a top concern.

Competing values

In spite of low support among the most devout, Trump is winning Republican primaries and peeling off some voters who were traditionally seen as part of a religious coalition, prompting questions about whether values voters are a relic of the past.

John C. Green, distinguished professor of political science at the University of Akron, said this election cycle is unique in the level of discontent with the political process among voters. Demographic differences also matter, he said, but they pale compared to that discontent, which overwhelms other kinds of values.

“The so-called values voters of previous years are still around, and you can see a similar impact on the vote as we’ve seen previously, but there’s a huge competitor there, and the competitor is this anger toward the system,” he said.

Others have suggested that because Christians are becoming a smaller slice of the American population, many of them are content with a leader who will protect them rather than one who resembles them. Writing for The Washington Post, King’s College professor of history Joseph Loconte compared current evangelical support for Trump to Pope Leo’s support for the brutal Roman emperor Charles the Great, or Charlemagne, who didn't always live by Christian principles but was known as a defender of Christians.

“People will talk themselves into their candidate being moral and good,” said Pope of BYU, and they may have different definitions of “honesty” or “integrity” in mind when answering a poll question.

In addition to asking about the most important personal characteristic in a presidential candidate, the poll asked voters about the least important. Overall, 43 percent identified strong religious faith as the least important factor in their vote, but among LDS voters, the figure was much lower at 30 percent, while among non-LDS voters it was 67 percent.

Similarly, among very religiously active voters, just 27 percent said strong religious faith was least important, compared with 51 percent of other voters. Many actively religious voters said the least important attributes for them were bucking political correctness (28 percent) and expressing views with strength and authority (17 percent).

Green said that when voters say they care about a candidate’s faith, it is usually as a proxy for other things they care about more, such as honesty or integrity, and they assume — rightly or wrongly — that a religious person may be more honest. (He said the same is true of education. People want a candidate who is educated not because the degree matters but because they might be more perceptive or creative.)

Green also said a candidate’s religion may matter more in a primary election than a general election, with candidates like Trump working to make minimal religious gestures and get over a certain bar.

“A good example is 2012, where on the Republican side religion mattered a lot in the primaries, but once Mitt Romney won the nomination and faced Barack Obama, religion largely vanished from the campaign,” said Green. “You could see it in voting behavior, but it was habitual voting behavior” based on partisan politics and not religion.

If Trump is the GOP's nominee, Green said, it’s hard to know what role religion might play in the general election because he has so far turned conventional wisdom on its head.

One of the great debates among political scientists now is whether Trump represents a new trend in politics in which celebrity and incivility become commonplace political weapons, Green said. The answer won’t be clear for several years, he said.


Twitter: @allisonpond