SALT LAKE CITY — Ahead of the 2016 presidential election, Utah was the subject of national speculation as media outlets churned out headlines like, “How Trump could end the Republican lock on the Mormon vote,” and “Why Utah Mormons’ distaste for Trump could turn a red state reluctantly blue.” This year, Utah is expected to return to its deep red roots, and political scientists are no longer questioning whether Utahns will go for Donald Trump.
So what changed?
“In the time since 2016, there has been a slow and steady movement back towards the president,” said Quin Monson, an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University. A February 2020 Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll with KSL showed that Trump’s approval rating in Utah is on the rise. Eighty percent of Utah Republicans now approve of the job Trump is doing.
Voters like Kayson Stevens, 26, from Springville, say it’s because Trump has “kept his promises.” Stevens didn’t vote for anyone in 2016 because he didn’t trust Trump and didn’t like his other options. This year, he said he will proudly cast a vote to reelect the president.
“He’s proven to me that he is working for us. He is bringing back jobs, he is working on national security,” said Stevens. “As citizens, we want that. We want to feel safe and we want to have a good lifestyle.”
Matthew Bowman, an associate professor of religion and history at Claremont Graduate University, says Trump, who was once considered an outsider, has changed what it means to be Republican as he’s gained the trust of the party establishment.
“In fact, he has become the establishment in some ways,” Bowman said.
But Monson says that Utah’s “warming” towards Trump has been limited to the strongest partisans. Utah’s overall approval rating for Trump remains relatively low, and women in particular are less likely to support the president. According to survey research company Morning Consult, just over half of all registered voters in Utah think Trump is doing a good job, with 52% saying they approve of his performance. That’s up from a low point of 43% in December 2017. While Utah’s rate sits above the national average, it pales in comparison to other red states like Idaho, with a 60% approval rating and Wyoming, where 62% say they approve of Trump.
“People who are moderately conservative, or who identify as Republican but not strong Republican, and at the same time are active, participating Latter-day Saints are among the Republicans that are most reticent to get fully behind Donald Trump,” said Monson. “And that remains true to this day.”
Many Utahns cited Trump’s moral character as a major concern in 2016. Profanity as well as allegations of adultery and sexual harassment were particularly offensive to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who make up the large majority of Republican voters in Utah, said David E. Campbell, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame.
“As an LDS Republican woman, there was no way I could support him,” said Rulayne Derrickson, 70, who lives in Tooele and has voted Republican her whole life. “I believe he has destroyed true conservatism and the family values I thought were at the heart of the Republican Party.”
Immigration, an issue at the forefront of Trump’s campaign, was another area where many members of the church, which has a fast-growing Latino membership, found themselves at odds with the unorthodox candidate, according to Campbell.
Just three months before election day, former CIA officer Evan McMullin swooped into the 2016 race. As a conservative third party candidate and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, McMullin further threatened to upend decades of Utah voting trends as some anticipated he could take the state from both Trump and Hillary Clinton.
In the end, Utah voters “came home to their party,” said Campbell. Trump took the presidency with 45% of the vote from Utah (an historic low for a Republican presidential candidate). McMullin still amazed pundits like Campbell by taking 20% of the Utah vote, but didn’t surpass Hillary Clinton, who got 27%.
Curiously, another conservative religious group, evangelical Protestants, were much quicker to support Trump’s candidacy, with an impressive 81% voting for him in the 2016 election, according to Pew Research Center. Campbell said the divide between Latter-day Saints and evangelicals was more about Trump’s brazen way of speaking than his policy proposals.
“If you think about General Conference, Mormons are used to listening to elderly men in dark suits and white shirts, speaking in a very soothing, quiet way,” said Campbell. “A lot of politicians, like Mitt Romney, actually adopt that same sort of speech pattern.”
“If you’re an evangelical, you’re used to a guy jumping around onstage and rock bands and that kind of stuff in a religious setting, so stronger speech might seem more natural in a political setting as well,” he added.
Campbell said that even though some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been slower to support Trump than evangelicals, they are coming around.
“Trump’s approval ratings in Utah are certainly on the upswing, and I would anticipate that will only continue,” Campbell said.
There are two types of Republicans, according to Bowman. In Utah, “mainstream Republicans,” characterized by their support from the party establishment almost always beat “movement Republicans,” who tend to be more “populist, insurgent, brash and confrontational,” he said.
Because Trump was an outsider, the Republican establishment profoundly distrusted him in 2016, and so did Utah voters, Bowman said. But in four years, Trump has taken over the Republican establishment by giving them what they want, like tax cuts and conservative judges, said Bowman.
“And that means that Utah Republicans are now kind of comfortable,” said Bowman. “Because he runs the party, there is much more reluctance to confront him.”
Andy Brimhall, a 25-year-old student studying finance at Brigham Young University, voted for Gary Johnson in 2016. Brimhall was primarily concerned about decreasing the size of the federal government and didn’t trust Trump to implement conservative policies, he said.
Brimhall had a change of heart after seeing Trump’s consistent efforts to thwart Obamacare and his executive order requiring that for every new federal regulation, two must be revoked. His affinity for the president grew to the point that he decided to intern at the White House from January through April 2019.
“When I look at what Trump has done for Utah especially, the guy has defended religious freedom through and through; he has limited the scope of the federal government here, and I think Utahns really appreciate that,” said Brimhall.
For Brimhall, as well as Chris Cannon, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives who lives in Spanish Fork, the criticism Trump has faced from media and from Democrats has only served to strengthen their support for the president. Cannon endorsed McMullin in 2016 because he thought McMullin best represented Utah’s values. He said he now plans to vote for Trump.
Cannon, who was involved in the prosecution of Bill Clinton when he was being impeached, was “appalled” by Trump’s impeachment, which he called “an entirely partisan process.”
“The president, in the face of opposition, has done a great deal. He has moved the country in the direction it needs to go,” said Cannon.
But that doesn’t mean Cannon approves of everything Trump does, says or tweets.
“I support him, but I didn’t say whether I like him or not,” said Cannon.
While experts like Morgan Lyon Cotti, an adjunct assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah, fully expect that Trump will do better in Utah this year than he did in 2016, it remains true that he will have to work to win over Latter-day Saint women in particular.
A 2019 study from the Democracy Fund and UCLA Nationscape showed that 44% of women who identify as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Mormons say they disapprove of Trump, compared to 33% of Latter-day Saint identifying men. Women in general tend to be more likely to be Democrat, and that gender gap is more pronounced when it comes to Trump because of some of the controversies surrounding his treatment of women, including allegations of sexual assault, said Lyon Cotti.
Shelly Cluff, 33, who lives in Riverton and has three kids with one on the way, has been a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a conservative her whole life. Cluff voted for McMullin in 2016 and is a member of the Mormon Women for Ethical Government’s Utah chapter Facebook group, which has more than 1,200 members. Although the group is nonpartisan, members who are active on Facebook are vocally anti-Trump.
Even though Cluff likes that Trump cut taxes, she is concerned that the tax cuts were deficit-funded. And while she likes many of the things Trump has done, like reducing funding to Planned Parenthood, she is bothered that so many of his policies have been enacted via executive power.
“He has not made any long-term corrections to the amount of executive power that exists,” said Cluff. “As soon as a new president is elected, the pendulum will swing right back.”
However, Cluff’s bigger concerns are centered around Trump’s moral character and the example he sets for the rest of the country as a leader.
“I have seen among my social networks, an increase of people making disparaging comments about immigrants or Muslims or generally,” said Cluff, who thinks people have been emboldened to behave rudely because of Trump’s rhetoric. “That has been concerning to me.”
“My voting is informed by Latter-day Saint scripture that says to seek and uphold leaders who are honest, wise and good,” said Cluff.
In the end, the biggest difference between the 2016 election and this year’s election is that it is unlikely a conservative third party candidate like McMullin will run again, said Campbell.
A January 2020 poll for UtahPolicy.com and 2 News showed that 46% of likely voters in Utah said they would vote for Trump if the election were held now and 31% said they would vote for the future Democratic nominee. The rest said they were unsure or would vote for another candidate.
Campbell anticipates a good number of those undecided voters will end up “coming home” to the Republican party, but it depends on who the Democratic candidate is. Progressive candidates like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren would likely push even more Utah voters towards Trump, according to Monson.
Cluff said she doesn’t know who she would vote for in 2020, but Warren and Sanders are not “wise” options in her opinion, and neither is Trump.
“What’s the choice for a strong Republican? Vote for Trump or stay home,” said Campbell.