The experience felt like watching a show from a Trump cover band in a crowded hotel ballroom. There were attendees in MAGA hats, Fox News applause lines and a man carrying a sign reading “Joe Biden is a fraud, the Arizona audit is going to uncover the fraud” outside the venue.
For the Arizona stop of their national “America First” Tour, embattled GOP Reps. Matt Gaetz, of Florida, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, of Georgia, chose the Delta Hotel by Marriott in Mesa. The May 21 rally opened with a prayer and hometown Republican Rep. Andy Biggs, one of nine Latter-day Saints currently in Congress, served as one of the opening acts.
During his remarks, Biggs criticized President Joe Biden, praised former President Donald Trump, and explained why he was so confident in his side’s political cause. “You know what we have on our side, ladies and gentlemen?” Biggs asked. “We have God.”
It’s unclear whether such religious political overtones are attracting Latter-day Saint voters in Arizona or whether they’re turning off Biggs’ coreligionists. What is clear is that Latter-day Saints, once the most reliably Republican religious group, find themselves affected by a political realignment that began a decade ago and has only accelerated during the tumultuous Trump years.
The implications of the changing Latter-day Saint political consensus won’t be fully known in just one election cycle, but in the short term, their vote could help decide the fate of a closely divided Congress in next year’s midterm elections.
In Arizona, as well as neighboring Nevada, about 1 in 17 residents are Latter-day Saints, according to data from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Both states, considered battlegrounds in presidential elections, are expected to have competitive Senate races with incumbent Democrats in 2022, and depending on how new congressional district boundaries are drawn in these and other Mountain West states, Latter-day Saint voters could also sway the makeup of the House.
And as 2020 showed, the Latter-day Saints, while generally conservative, are not a monolith when casting ballots.
“I think in general, we voted as a bloc much more frequently prior to 2010,” said Tyler Bowyer, a national GOP committeeman and former member of the advisory board for Latter-day Saints for Trump. Some of the early indicators of the Latter-day Saint political realignment came from Arizona. “Mesa was kind of the epicenter for a lot of this,” Bowyer said.
A divided party
In 2010, the controversial immigration enforcement law SB1070 was co-sponsored by Latter-day Saint and former Arizona State Senate President Russell Pearce, and attitudes on the issue among church members were split between those with hardline views and others who favored a moderate approach, like Latter-day Saint and former Sen. Jeff Flake, who pushed for immigration reform.
At the time, Flake was a U.S. House member representing a district that covered Maricopa County’s Latter-day Saint heartland of Mesa and Gilbert. In the 2012 Republican primary for Arizona’s open U.S. Senate seat, Flake defeated Wil Cardon, a former ward member who was a more Tea Party-style candidate.
The early 2010s was also a golden age of Latter-day Saint Republican affiliation, with 80% of church members identifying or leaning toward the GOP, per a 2011 Pew study. The following year, now-Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, became the first Latter-day Saint presidential nominee of a major party.
Latter-day Saint political thought in the United States has long leaned right with politicians representing a wide conservative spectrum, but both Flake’s victory and Romney’s nomination seemed to suggest the moderates had won the day. But that narrative became more complicated over the next four years.
Though Trump won majorities of the Latter-day Saint vote in both 2016 and 2020, it was below the percentages garnered by past recent Republican nominees. Prominent Latter-day Saints like Flake and independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin established themselves among the leaders of the anti-Trump conservative movement, but they encountered a ceiling. McMullin didn’t receive any votes in the Electoral College in 2016, and Flake didn’t seek reelection in 2018, after Arizona’s Republican primary moved to the right. Flake was replaced by moderate Democrat Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who was raised a Latter-day Saint and attended BYU, though she no longer affiliates with the faith.
Up for grabs
Bowyer said today he encourages visiting Republicans from out-of-state to make an effort to reach out to voters of his faith, and that when Donald Trump Jr. was in the area last year, he took him by the Gilbert Arizona Temple.
“You guys have to learn the language, you have to spend time in this community because it’s important,” Bowyer said. “The more you do that, the fewer votes you’re going to lose.”
Even if disaffected Republicans represent a minority in the faith, it can make a meaningful difference. “You lose 5% of that bloc, you can be done in Arizona,” he said.
Sometimes, the overtures can backfire, though. At a 2020 Trump rally in Goodyear, Arizona, Latter-day Saint Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, compared Trump with Book of Mormon prophet Captain Moroni, and later had to walk it back.
“Some people found that comparison upsetting, blasphemous, and otherwise wrong,” Lee acknowledged in a statement.
It’s hard to gauge the impact — if any — that such moments have electorally, but 2020 did see Democratic gains among young Latter-day Saint voters. The 2020 Cooperative Election Study found while an overwhelming majority of those 40 and older voted for Trump over Biden (80% to 18%), among those 18-39, Biden won out with 47.5% of their vote, just ahead of 42.5% who voted for Trump. The study found no significant gender gap among Latter-day Saints, with about two-thirds of both men and women voting for Trump, and just less than one-third voting for Biden.
Today’s movement in Latter-day Saint voting patterns could be anomalous, but it may also represent the beginning of a bigger shift. As millennial and Gen Z voters become a larger segment of the voting population, observers say Latter-day Saints could become less Republican and more evenly split between the parties, but it won’t happen overnight.
“There is a definite weakening of Republican identity among Latter-day Saints that has occurred during the Trump years,” said Quin Monson, director of the BYU Office of Civic Engagement Leadership and partner at Y2 Analytics, a Salt Lake City market research group. “I don’t see a lot of evidence that there’s been a full-scale identity change.”
What does appear to be changing, however, is any sort of unwritten political-religious litmus test among Latter-day Saints. On the right, pro-Trump Republicans don’t feel bound to support a candidate just because they share a faith and party; in the middle, the politically homeless don’t feel bound to vote for Republicans or Democrats who don’t reflect their values; and on the left, the closet Democrats are proselytizing and welcoming the curious.
Electoral data isn’t comprehensive, but what appears to be playing out at ballot boxes from Alpine, Utah, to Queen Creek, Arizona, is voting that aligns with what President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the church’s First Presidency, said in his April General Conference address. Oaks told members “no party, platform, or individual candidate can satisfy all personal preferences” and that voters may vote for different parties from election to election.
“Such independent actions will sometimes require voters to support candidates or political parties or platforms whose other positions they cannot approve,” Oaks said. “That is one reason we encourage our members to refrain from judging one another in political matters. We should never assert that a faithful Latter-day Saint cannot belong to a particular party or vote for a particular candidate. We teach correct principles and leave our members to choose how to prioritize and apply those principles on the issues presented from time to time.”
Latter-day Saints still by and large vote Republican, and they could be inclined to do so next year, depending on the candidates, salient campaign issues and how involved Trump becomes. That’s what happened in 2018, when 67% of Latter-day Saints voted for Republicans, more than the 56% who said they approved of the job Trump was doing, according to the AP VoteCast survey.
Still, Latter-day Saint Democrats feel emboldened, like Rachael Clawson, chair of Latter-day Saint Democrats of Arizona, who said she’s more comfortable being a Democrat in the church today.
“I know that there’s the divisiveness and people are sort of stepping lightly,” she said. “But I almost appreciate that more than the assumption that everybody agrees politically and so I’m just going to say things from the pulpit and assume that everybody agrees with what I have to say.”
Her group is in the process of becoming an official caucus of the state party and holds regular meetings. “We are trying to increase visibility and let members know that we are a soft place they can land if they find themselves not knowing where to go,” Clawson said.
Regardless of how Latter-day Saints ending up voting next year, the state of flux they find themselves in politically can only mean one thing: the so-called “Mormon vote” is up for grabs.