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Are Latter-day Saint voters turning blue?

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The political status of the Latter-day Saint voting bloc doesn’t fit into a tidy narrative.

Bob Schutz, Associated Press

Are Latter-day Saint voters turning blue?

Last month’s Cook Political Report concludes that all four of Utah’s congressional districts are among the most Democratic-trending in the country. Latter-day Saint voters in Arizona doubled their Democratic turnout from 2016.

Meanwhile, a Democratic activist group with whom I spoke recently is optimistic about converting Latter-day Saint women, traditionally Republican, who it believes to be rejecting the GOP in greater percentages than other religious demographics. 

That candidate Donald Trump fared so poorly among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2016 was met with astonishment in national media coverage and a flurry of conjectures that Latter-day Saints were up for grabs.

And yet, the political status of the Latter-day Saint voting bloc doesn’t fit into a tidy narrative. Yes, there are signs that some Latter-day Saints are reconsidering the modern GOP, but at the same time there are suggestions that Latter-day Saints remain reliably Republican. 

Neither presidential candidate in 2016 put forward a reason to believe they would honor the virtues held close by people of faith. A convenient third party candidate, Evan McMullin, gave queasy voters in Utah and elsewhere a way out.

Latter-day Saint support for the Republican nominee — 72% in 2008, 83% in 2012 — dropped to 52% in 2016, according to data analyzed by Ryan Burge, an assistant professor at Eastern Illinois University and contributor to the Religion in Public blog. Latter-day Saint voting for Hillary Clinton also topped Barack Obama’s numbers by eight points.

Yet, partisan identity is not easily abandoned, cautions Quin Monson, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. “And Latter-day Saints are no exception.”

The most illustrative example is rather mundane: “Look down the ballot,” Monson says. Despite an unappetizing presidential choice, Latter-day Saints in Utah largely helped elect Republicans to state offices. Last year they helped elect a Republican governor who enjoyed a comfortable 63% share of the statewide vote.

Also, Latter-day Saints warmed to President Trump over time. He entered office with a 50% approval rating from members of the church, a number that went up to 62% one year later. By 2020, two-thirds approved, according to Burge.

And, Trump grabbed nearly equal percentages of Latter-day Saint men (66%) and women (65%) in 2020, despite preelection predictions of a widening gender gap.

Clearly, one man is not enough to upturn long-standing loyalties overnight.

That shouldn’t overshadow the nuances, though. Trump failed to garner the same level of Latter-day Saint support as previous Republican presidents, and at least a third of McMullin voters chose the Democrat in 2020. Plus, Latter-day Saints tend to be more moderate on a number of issues than traditional conservatives.

And to see the more tangible weakening of party loyalty, look at 18- to 39-year-old Latter-day Saint voters, a plurality of whom voted for Biden. 

“If we’re going to see any sort of enduring change of partisan attachments among Latter-day Saints, it’s likely to happen among younger people,” says Monson. Most of them still affiliate with the Republican Party, but it seems there’s an increased willingness to defect. This is a phenomenon not exclusive to the religious; across the board, young voters have shown themselves to be more open-minded politically. Young Latter-day Saints show a similar disposition.

If you squint, you can make out a compelling narrative about a faith group’s partisan identity in metamorphosis. But it won’t be an immediate transformation, if it happens at all. Much depends simply on what kind of candidates the parties put forward in the future.