On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton's campaign released a Web ad -- "We are Mormons for Hillary" -- making a direct appeal to Mormon voters, whose influence can be felt in several 2016 swing states, including Arizona and Nevada.
Over the summer, Donald Trump acknowledged that he had a "terrible problem" in Utah, traditionally one of the most Republican states in the country at the presidential level. Polls confirmed that Hillary Clinton is within striking distance of the real estate mogul in a state the past several GOP presidential tickets have won by 30-40 points or more. Looking for a deeper explanation than "Mormons don't like him," I reached out to Salt Lake Tribune political reporter Robert Gehrke, one of The Fix's best state-based political reporters, for his perspective. Our conversation, conducted via email and edited only for grammar, is below.
FIX: Mitt Romney won Utah by 48 points in 2012. It is considered one of the most Republican states in the country. So, why should we believe this is a real race between Trump and Clinton? Or shouldn’t we?
Gehrke: Earlier polls showed Clinton either leading or tied with Trump. The most recent poll had Trump with a 12-point lead. [Update: the most recent poll now has Trump up by 9; an average of recent polls has him up by 15.] There are some issues with how that poll was conducted and I would guess Trump’s lead is actually in the single digits. But that’s a big deal for a state that hasn’t voted for a Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. This state should not be that close.
And keep in mind, those polls were all done before Evan McMullin got into the race. Nationally, McMullin may end up being a blip on the radar, but he was born in Utah, is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is a Mormon. He has the potential to play a significant factor in how this state ends up going because he gives disenchanted Republicans a more comfortable alternative than Libertarian Gary Johnson.
So is it a real race? Probably not the type of nail-biter that will have candidates and surrogates pouring in for rallies. But, as you noted, Trump is showing some real weakness here, and there is the potential that, with the third-party candidates possibly playing spoilers, it could come down to the wire.
One more thing that is important is what Trump’s weakness in Utah could mean for true swing states. Four years ago, Utah Republicans were being bused by the hundreds to Nevada and Colorado to knock on doors — Mormons are good at that — and register voters in those true battleground states. There is no way that magnitude of support turns out for Trump this time though.
FIX: Most people ascribe Trump’s seeming struggles in the state to skepticism toward him from the Mormon community. Is that right? Or is there more happening?
It boils down to a style and substance that Mormons don’t like. Nobody wins in Utah by being in full-tilt attack mode. His immigration policy is a problem for members of a faith who serve two-year missions, many overseas, proselytizing for their church and don’t see immigrants generally as rapists and job-stealers. Trump’s approach to Muslims has been cited as a problem for a faith that was chased out of one state after another and still has a culture steeped in that refugee mentality. Church leaders took the unusual step of issuing a statement embracing religious pluralism after Trump’s Muslim comments.
And I have heard from many people that his personal conduct — the third marriage and brash nature, along with some doubts about where he is on abortion issues — doesn’t sit well with social conservatives. There are people in Utah who marry younger women over and over. We call them polygamists, not presidents.
FIX: Spencer Cox — the state’s Republican lieutenant governor — has been an outspoken voice in the Never Trump movement. How have the other major Republican elected officials in the state handled it?
Gehrke: They’ve handled Trump much like one would handle radioactive waste or a rabid porcupine. [State] House Speaker Greg Hughes is pretty much Trump’s only full-throated supporter. Gov. Gary Herbert came around and endorsed once Trump added [Indiana Gov. Mike] Pence to the ticket. Sen. Orrin Hatch is on board because he doesn’t want Clinton choosing Supreme Court justices.
Cox, as you mentioned, is the highest-ranking elected official to say he wouldn’t vote for Trump, and State Sen. Mark Madsen has endorsed Gary Johnson.
Rep. Mia Love, who spoke at the GOP convention four years ago in prime time, avoided it this year and Rep. Jason Chaffetz was conveniently out of the country on a congressional trip. Maybe the best Trump endorsement came from Rep. Chris Stewart, who compared him to Mussolini but said he’ll probably vote for him anyway.
And then there’s Mitt Romney, who lives here now and who Utahans have always claimed as their own, who obviously hasn’t hidden his contempt for Trump. If the race is still tight six weeks from now, I’d expect to see Romney ads in heavy rotation here.
FIX: Do you see any evidence of the Clinton or Trump campaigns building a real ground operation in the state? If so, who and how much?
Gehrke: There hasn’t been much activity yet. Clinton will be opening a field office in the state and there are some rumblings that the national party will be putting some resources in, partly for Clinton but more for Democrat Doug Owens who is running against Love. Trump this week has been ramping up his field office and is signing a lease on some office space and has begun hiring staff. Again, it will likely be nowhere near as robust as the Romney operation in 2012, but it may be an unfair comparison.
So both are still in the formative stages and my impression is it’s more part of their respective “50-state strategies.” We’ll have to see how those operations mature.
FIX: Finish this sentence: “Donald Trump wins Utah on November 8th if ____________.” Now, explain.
Gehrke: " ... the third party candidates peel off less than 25 to 30 percent of the vote."
Trump’s saving grace right now is that Hillary Clinton is less popular in Utah than Trump is. Keep in mind, Bill Clinton finished third in the state behind Ross Perot in 1992. So at this point it’s a matchup of Zika against Ebola and Zika is coming out ahead.
My gut tells me that Clinton has a ceiling in Utah that is probably somewhere around 35 percent. So to win Utah, it becomes an issue of keeping Trump below that ceiling. The Clinton campaign can’t do that on its own.
Fortunately for Team Clinton, we’ve seen Gary Johnson polling around 16 percent — this is the same guy who got 1.3 percent of the vote in Utah when he was on the ballot four years ago, so that speaks to the Trump discontent — and now, we’ve added the McMullin wild card. I could see McMullin sucking votes from both Trump and Johnson and finishing somewhere in the double digits.
Is it enough to hold down Trump’s numbers [so] that Clinton can win Utah with a small plurality? It would be a hell of a thing. Guess that’s why they play the game.