Trump’s Problem with Mormon Voters is Getting Worse
July 27, 2023
From the earliest days of his campaign, it was clear Donald Trump had a Mormon problem. During the campaign, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) had ambivalent feelings about him and his influence in the GOP. Now, Trump’s standing among Latter-day Saints—a once loyal Republican constituency—is deteriorating.
A new poll conducted by the Survey Center on American Life finds sharply diverging views between Latter-day Saints and white evangelical Protestants. More than half (51 percent) of Latter-day Saints express negative views of the former president. They are also twice as likely to have a very unfavorable than a very favorable opinion of him. By way of comparison, two-thirds (67 percent) of white evangelical Protestants have favorable views of Trump.
In a head-to-head match-up with Biden, less than half (48 percent) of Latter-day Saints say they would vote for Trump, but 62 percent would support DeSantis in a two-way contest with Biden. And I don’t think DeSantis is especially well-positioned to attract support from LDS voters—he’s too focused on culture war politics—but he still fares far better than Trump.
In his past two elections, Trump vastly underperformed previous Republican nominees. In an interesting study, the American Communities Project found that GOP support in “LDS Enclaves,” a cluster of 39 counties in the Mountain West, cratered in 2016. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of voters in LDS Enclaves voted Republican in 2012, but that share dropped to less than half (47 percent) in 2016. It rebounded in 2020 but remained well below that of past Republican candidates. LDS voters nationwide followed a similar pattern, as I noted in a previous newsletter. Support for Republican presidential candidates previously topped 80 percent before dropping nearly 20 points in 2016.
A Politics that Emphasizes Respect for Diversity and Difference
It would be difficult to design a Republican candidate less appealing to Latter-day Saint voters than Donald Trump. Yet, the objections many Latter-day Saints have with Trump go beyond his boorish and self-aggrandizing behavior. His worldview is largely antithetical to the values of humility, modesty, and frugality the Church teaches. In 2016, McKay Coppins argued that Trump’s brand of grievance politics would be a poor fit for Latter-day Saints:
Mr. Trump’s pitchfork populism doesn’t hold the same visceral appeal for a religious community with above-average education levels, relatively stable families and comfortable middle-class incomes. The urgency to ‘Make America Great Again’ may not be quite so deeply felt.
And this is true. But I don’t think the differences are entirely explained by socioeconomic status or a sense of victimhood. (For one, college-educated white evangelicals like Trump more than your average Latter-day Saint.) More than anything else, what differentiates Latter-day Saints from white evangelical Protestants is their commitment to cultural pluralism and political tolerance. Sixty-one percent of Latter-day Saints say that America’s increasing racial and ethnic diversity is a good thing for society, a view shared by only 36 percent of white evangelical Protestants. Nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of church members believe the US should encourage more diversity as it fosters tolerance and understanding. Most white evangelicals reject this view.
Latter-day Saints are also far more sensitive to structural inequalities in American society, believing that some groups are singled out for mistreatment. Roughly two-thirds of Mormons believe that Muslims (68 percent) and Jews (65 percent) face a lot of discrimination in the US, while less than half of white evangelicals say this is true (46 percent and 45 percent, respectively). In fact, there is only one religious group that most white evangelicals believe experiences a lot of discrimination in America: Christians.
It’s not just greater sensitivity to religious discrimination that makes Latter-day Saints distinct. They express concerns about racial inequality and sexism in ways that are increasingly uncommon among conservative Christians. And, even as religious liberty remains an important political priority, they have generally positive views about gay and lesbian people.
The Future of the LDS Vote
Whatever reservations many LDS voters had with Trump, a large number still voted for him in 2020. The gravitational pull of partisan attachment was too strong. It’s also worth noting that, after four years in office, Trump fared slightly better with LDS voters in his reelection. Fifty-nine percent of voters in LDS Enclaves supported Trump in 2020. For every Mitt Romney who has formally announced he will not support Trump even if he is the GOP nominee, there is a Sen. Mike Lee, who once compared Trump to Captain Moroni in the Book of Mormon, who is described as “a virtuous, selfless man who did everything in his power to serve and care for others.”
Latter-day Saints remain a Republican constituency with conservative views on a host of issues from abortion to gay rights. There’s been some deterioration of Republican affiliation in the post-Trump era, but it remains modest. Gallup polls show 62 percent of church members are Republican or lean towards the Republican Party, down from 69 percent in 2016.
Generational patterns suggest this drop may just be the beginning. In his Substack, Ryan Burge argues that a “seismic shift” is occurring in the politics of young Latter-day Saints. Young members are far less conservative and committed to the GOP than older members. Burge notes that less than half now identify as Republican.
More immediately, the Republican Party faces the prospect of a staunchly conservative and engaged group of voters who simply will not support the party’s leading candidate. This will matter in places like Arizona (and to a lesser extent Nevada) that have sizable populations of LDS voters. At this stage, it’s not clear who the GOP nominee will be. If it ends up being Trump, the rising defections of these once committed Republican voters will matter a great deal. To the extent that Trump makes the 2024 election about himself and the outcome of the last election—a near certainty—he will struggle with LDS voters. Most church members believe Biden was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election, a minority view among white evangelical Protestants.
In 2016, a stay-at-home mother and LDS member Amanda Blanc, fed up with the vitriol of the campaign created a sign with a simple message: “Make America Kind Again.” In an interview with CNN Blanc said, “It’s about being respectful and acknowledging that we live in a diverse society. It’s okay to be different—that’s what’s great about America.” It can be easy to forget, but kindness can be a political asset. It’s a quality many Latter-day Saints are looking for in a candidate, and one that is notably absent among GOP frontrunners.