June 13, 2016 at 1:00 PM
No state voted more heavily for the GOP presidential nominee in 2012 than Utah. And in 2008, it was the third-most Republican state in the union.
A new poll shows that Donald Trump is tied with Hillary Clinton in Utah.
We're not quite saying, of course, that Utah is a tossup or that Trump is in real trouble in the ruby-red state — or even that it portends trouble for Trump in the 2016 presidential race, more broadly. There are plenty of factors at work here that are unique to Utah and the poll (which we will get to).
But it's also hard to overemphasize how unthinkable it is for a Republican — any Republican — to be tied in Utah in any poll.
The poll was conducted by automated pollster SurveyUSA for the Salt Lake Tribune. It has Trump and Clinton tied at 35 percent, with Libertarian Party candidate and former Republican New Mexico governor Gary Johnson at 13 percent.
Johnson's presence as an option in this poll surely depresses Trump's share of the vote; that's point No. 1. And third-party candidates tend to poll better than they perform on Election Day, when voters want to pick a candidate who can actually win.
But it's also true that Utah really, really doesn't like Trump. We first saw that in the state's presidential primary, in which Trump finished third — behind John Kasich! — at 14 percent, while Ted Cruz took 69 percent of the vote. But this poll really drives it home. Trump is viewed favorably by just 20 percent of the state's voters and unfavorably by 65 percent.
Indeed, Trump's only saving grace here is that he's basically no more unpopular than Clinton, who is at 21 percent favorable and 67 percent unfavorable.
So why doesn't it necessarily mean bad things nationally? Because Utah is a thoroughly unique state. Its population and politics — and especially its Republican politics — are dominated by Mormons, who have shown a healthy resistance to all things Trump in a way that basically no other GOP group has. Translating this poll anywhere else in the country is a fraught exercise.
And, indeed, if there's a state that might be the most inviting to a third-party candidacy, it would be Utah. Utah and Idaho — the two states with the highest Mormon populations — were among Ross Perot's best in 1992, each giving him 27 percent of the vote. Perot even outpolled Bill Clinton in Utah.
As former Fix-er Hunter Schwarz noted over at the Independent Journal recently:
Trump's policy proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country goes against a historical and doctrinal opposition to religious discrimination among Mormons. The thrice-married candidate's boastful and brash style also clashes with traditional Mormon ideals of leadership qualities.
So what's a Mormon voter — particularly a Republican one repelled by Trump but equally queasy about pulling the lever for Clinton — to do? The Libertarian Party has a suggestion, and if a third-party candidate has a prayer of having any significant impact in the 2016 election, winning over Mormon voters is a good place to start.
Brian Kamerath, the Utah Libertarian Party secretary, told Independent Journal Review that Utah voters like Libertarian principles like "agency and laissez-faire government and staying out of people's lives," and think a Libertarian could "potentially" win the state.
The campaign headquarters for Libertarian presidential candidate Gov. Gary Johnson is even in Salt Lake City, where his campaign manager Ron Nielson lives.
Johnson also has the backing of former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, whom he said he'd like as his running mate if he wins the party's nomination. Weld was a fundraiser in 2012 for the Beyonce of Mormon Republicans, Mitt Romney.
(Update: Also see McKay Coppins's well-timed op-ed on "Donald Trump's Mormon Problem" in the New York Times on Monday.)
The state's aversion to both the Clintons and Trump provides a unique recipe for November, and there is perhaps no state in which Johnson has a better shot at really catching on.
Which is not to say that Trump is going to lose one of the most Republican states in the country — to either Clinton or Johnson. But it is to say that it's worth watching. The fact that Republicans in Utah so thoroughly dislike Trump is one of the stranger electoral dynamics we're likely to see in an election year already full of strange dynamics.