Trump’s Stumbles With a Huge, Traditionally-Republican Religious Group Could Cause Him Major Problems in 2020Daniel A. Cox January 26, 2019
Suzy, a mother of four and resident of Salt Lake City, has always been a Republican. As a student at the University of Utah, she was heavily involved in the College Republicans. After graduation, she volunteered for the late Republican Sen. Bob Bennet and later for Mitt Romney’s 2007 presidential campaign. “I love politics and I love the Republican Party,” she says.
Yet despite a long and active history in Republican politics, Suzy refused to vote for Donald Trump, the party’s 2016 nominee. Her faith is a large reason why. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Suzy found Trump’s personal behavior to be inconsistent with her religious values. It was a deal breaker.
“It’s not about issues,” Suzy says. “You could do all the things he is doing without the blatant disregard for others.”
Sarah, a Mormon living in Arlington, Virginia, similarly objects to the way Trump treats others, particularly women. “When they think about Trump they don’t think about the boy in sixth grade who snapped your bra, and I do,” she says.
They aren’t alone. Although rank-and-file Republicans have staunchly backed Trump throughout his tumultuous first term, he continues to struggle to attract support from Mormons. Now, a major new national study by the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group that includes interviews with over 1,300 Mormons reveals Trump’s enduring weakness with this Republican-leaning constituency.
Trump’s recent efforts to shore up support among white evangelical Christians belie his enduring challenges among Mormon voters.
Turned off by Trump’s style
Only 58 percent of Mormon voters said they would back Trump over Democratic candidate Joe Biden, the current leading contender for the nomination. Even fewer Mormons—slightly more than half (52 percent)—have a favorable view of Trump. Forty-three percent have an unfavorable opinion of him.
While some conservative Christians have cheered Trump’s bellicosity and belligerence, his tendency to see any political disagreement as a personal attack repels most Mormons.
“I’m all for promoting conservative values, but the discourse and tone have been degraded,” says Suzy. “I like his policies, but what you say matters and how you say it matters.”
Up until the 2016 election, the voting patterns of Mormon and white evangelical Protestants were nearly indistinguishable. In 2004, 80 percent of Mormons and roughly as many white evangelical Protestants (78 percent) supported Republican George W. Bush. When Mitt Romney was the Republican nominee in 2012, an equal share of white evangelical Protestants and Mormons (78 percent) voted for him. When Trump became the nominee, Mormon support plummeted.
Trump’s support among white evangelical Protestants—an impressive 81 percent —was probably the most widely cited number from the 2016 national exit polls. But equally important was his historically poor showing among Mormon voters. Only 61 percent supported him.
For some conservative Christians, the specter of large-scale social and cultural change and Trump’s championing of white Christian culture have served to mitigate criticism of some of his personal behavior. But Mormons have never occupied a dominant place in the cultural or political hierarchy, and appeals to these fears are not as resonant. Despite a history of persecution, few Mormons believe Christians in the US today are facing a lot of discrimination, a view that is much more common among white evangelical Christians.
In fact, Mormons appear less interested in waging a culture war at all. Even on some of the most contentious issues, such as the thorny debate between religious liberty and LGBT discrimination, Mormons have demonstrated an interest in working to find a middle ground. The LDS Church’s support for the “Fairness for All Act,” which tries to simultaneously address the issue of LGBT discrimination while simultaneously ensuring religious liberty, is but one example.
“We don’t go out with guns blazing, because we don’t ever want those guns pointed toward us,” says Suzy.
A potential problem for Trump in West
Given their modest size at just 2 percent of the population, Mormon apathy is unlikely to doom Trump’s reelection prospects. However, because Mormons reside disproportionately in western states, it’s conceivable that they could put purplish states like Nevada out of reach for Trump and while making states like Arizona more competitive.
By the end of Trump’s first month in office, more Americans disapproved of his job performance than approved of it. Since then, his national approval rating has been mired in the low 40s, which will probably put the national vote out of reach
If Trump wins reelection it will be because he’s able to edge out his Democratic opponent in a couple of key states, and a few groups, like Mormons, could play an outsized role in these contests.
In the long run, it’s difficult to know what effect the Trump presidency will have on the Republican Party, and voters like Sarah and Suzy. Neither is interested in leaving the party. But the experience has irrevocably changed how both think about their politics.
“I’ll never vote straight ticket Republican the way I did before Trump,” Suzy says.