SALT LAKE CITY — At the end of a week that saw the Trump and Biden campaigns battle over Latter-day Saint voters, Democrats used Saturday’s “Latter-day Saints for Joe” national town hall meeting to make a case that more church members should be Democrats during this election cycle.
“Put your shoulder to the wheel, choose the right and let’s get a new president we can all support,” said Scott Howell, chairman of the Biden campaign in Utah, using familiar church terms.
He and four other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints quoted the Bible, Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants as they worked to convince those tuning in to the national web-based event that Biden and the Democratic Party are aligned with the values of the church and country.
The Saturday town hall highlights a week of competing campaigning between Republicans and Democrats. On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence announced the GOP had launched “Latter-day Saints for Trump” at a rally in Arizona.
The pro-Trump group infuriated some Latter-day Saints when its new website appeared with the names and photos of its advisory board over a backdrop of the Salt Lake Temple, an iconic church image. The church maintains a strict policy of political neutrality and is not involved in any of the campaigns.
By Saturday, the backdrop image of the temple had been replaced with an image of Vice President Pence on the rostrum at the Arizona event. But the message was clear: people of note, including former Sen. Orrin Hatch, are trumpeting the accomplishments of President Trump for people of faith.
Howell, a former Utah state senator who has known Biden for years, called him a man of faith. He encouraged young people to “put your trust and faith in God continually” and shared his testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Howell also read a Facebook post from a son of the late Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett that he called a posthumous endorsement of sorts.
Some electoral experts say Latter-day Saints could play an outsized role in a presidential race that could come down to a few hotly contested states. That makes them a small but key component of both the Trump campaign and Biden’s campaign this year, particularly in Arizona and Nevada with their strong Latter-day Saint populations.
Biden campaign officials are telling faith communities that his ticket has a “family-first, opportunity-focused agenda.”
“I just want to kick off by saying how important outreach to the Latter-day Saint community is to the Biden campaign, because we believe that there is a strong overlap in shared values between what Latter-day Saints stand for and the agenda of Vice President Biden and Sen. Harris,” said Joshua Dickson, the national faith engagement director for the Biden campaign.
While 80% of Latter-day Saints voted for GOP candidates in 2008 and 78% did so in 2012, Trump received 60% of Latter-day Saint votes in 2016, according to exit polling.
Trump’s support among Latter-day Saints nationally in this election might be similar or even see a slip, according to early polling. Some church members have changed sides. For example, some lifelong Latter-day Saint Republicans who nervously showed up at Iowa’s Democratic caucuses in February were surprised and relieved to find half their congregation there, said Rob Taber, national co-chair of Latter-day Saint Democrats of America.
“They knew what we know. If President Trump gets another four years, they will be worse than the last,” he said.
Still, others, some of whom did not vote for Trump in 2016, say he has won their vote this year. In Utah, the Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll taken at the end of July showed that 55% of respondents said they approve of the president’s job performance, while 42% disapprove.
Those Iowa church members aren’t the only Latter-day Saints who have taken issue with Trump’s actions. Taber mentioned prominent Latter-day Saints, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who became the first senator in U.S. history to vote to convict his own party’s president for abuse of power, and former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a lifelong Republican and conservative who has announced his support for Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris.
Flake’s outspoken opposition to the president’s actions, however, cost him support in Arizona and he did not seek reelection.
Taber also mentioned the “Latter-day Saints who flooded the airports in January 2017 to protest the Muslim ban, and who have marched for science, school safety, fairness for women and Black lives.”
Longtime Trump supporter Don Peay said social media support for the new Republican group is high and that the GOP is still the right home for Latter-day Saints.
“If you look at what the president’s done — pro-life Supreme Court justices, a strong economy, a strong America, rescuing missionaries when they get stuck in foreign lands — President Trump has accomplished what the vast majority of Latter-day Saints want done. Right before COVID hit, he had a higher approval rating in Utah than Mitt Romney or anyone else but Gov. Gary Herbert,” Peay said.
At the time, Herbert’s approval rating was 65% and Trump’s was 57%. Romney also was at 57% and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was at 49%. At the time the poll was taken in late March, the economy was just beginning to see the impact of the shutdown. Unemployment claims rose from 282,000 to 3.3 million the week before the poll, then doubled the week after as the economy fell into a recession.
Bryndis Roberts, a Black Latter-day Saint woman, took part in the town hall event and described a number of reasons she will vote for the Biden-Harris ticket.
“This election is a chance for this nation to continue to strive to be truly a place of liberty and justice for all,” she said. “The Trump administration has taken us backwards, and we need to move forward to a just and inclusive society.”
Roberts, a partner in the law firm of Jenkins and Roberts in College Park, Georgia, said voting for Biden is a vote for voting rights, environmental stewardship, equality in the justice system, women’s rights, pay equality, affordable housing and a just and human immigration system.
The election, she said, “presents us with clear choices. On the one hand, we can continue with divisiveness and exclusion, or on the other hand, we can move forward in unity and inclusion.”
Young Democrats feel the same way, said Abigail Woodfield, president of the BYU College Democrats.
“I’m incredibly disturbed by the way that Donald Trump ... represents a turn away from democracy,” she said during the town hall event. “He’s a really big threat to that aspect of our political system, and not just here but democracy everywhere. I think it’s imperative that he’s voted out of office.”
Howell characterized Biden as an inspiration for the way he overcame a childhood stutter, a reason Howell offered for the candidate’s occasional pauses or mixed-up words.
“My experience with Joe and the church has been marvelous,” he said, describing a Biden visit with church leaders in Utah in 2016, when leaders gave him books listing his genealogy and family history.
“He opened the book and he began to cry,” Howell said. “That’s is the individual he is. You know what? He’s religious. He’s Catholic. He’s dedicated to it.
Howell also read a note from Bennett’s son, Jim, who said his father would have seen decency as the most important issue in the election.
“I’m 100% certain that if my dad was still here, he’d vote for Joe Biden,” Jim Bennett wrote on Facebook. “Furthermore, he’d be doing it as a positive vote, a vote for Biden, not just a vote against Trump. Dad and Biden were good friends. They talked religion quite a bit, and they exchange religious books in what was I believe a long-running, good-natured and wholly unsuccessful attempt by each man to convert the other. Biden’s nickname for dad was bishop. Dad both liked and respected Biden and recognized him as a man of faith.”
Pence and Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris are scheduled to debate at the University of Utah in October.