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Donald Trump’s very bad Mormon problem, explained

Evan McMullin, a conservative independent presidential candidate, speaks at an Oct. 12 town hall meeting in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP)

Most of the very first Republican lawmakers to disown Donald Trump and call for him to drop out of the presidential race over the weekend came from one relatively small state: Utah.

That was no surprise. This reliably Republican state hates Donald Trump. That might seem harsh, but there's really no other way to describe it.

And the reason is clear and unmistakable: It's because of Mormons, who are very conservative and normally very Republican, but who are also very anti-Trump. We knew that before, but now we have a gauge of just how much.

Why Hillary Clinton is making a new Mormon pitch

Monmouth University released a poll Thursday that was the second in two days to suggest Trump has a fight on his hands to hold this ruby-red state. While a poll Wednesday showed Trump tied with Hillary Clinton at 26 percent and third-party candidate Evan McMullin just 4 points back, this one is slightly better for Trump. It shows him up 6 points on Clinton, 34-28, with McMullin stalking behind at 20 percent.

Still in play, but not quite as dire.

What is dire, though, is Trump's standing with Utah voters. Only 19 percent of them have a favorable opinion of him, while 71 percent have an unfavorable one. Those are stunningly bad numbers for any politician — and especially when you're talking about a Republican in a deep-red state. In fact, his image is worse than Clinton's, whose favorable-unfavorable split is 25/69. And yet Trump leads, because #partisanship.

If you dig further into the numbers, you'll find that the reason Trump is so disliked and in a close race is almost completely attributable to Mormons, who comprise about 60 percent of the state's population.

Among non-Mormons, Trump runs about as well as the other Republicans on the ballot this year. Gov. Gary Herbert trails among non-Mormons by 10 points, and Sen. Mike Lee trails among them by 17. Trump's deficit, meanwhile, is 21 points.

Among just Mormons, though, Trump takes 38 percent of the vote, while Herbert takes 80 percent and Lee takes 79 percent.

Now, these Mormon voters aren't going to Clinton, mind you — despite a new push this week aimed specifically at that demographic — but they have found a home with McMullin, a Mormon and Utahn who is focusing intently not just on Utah as a state, but on fellow Utah Mormons. In fact, McMullin remains basically unknown to everybody but Utah Mormons. While 46 percent of Mormons are able to rate him either favorably or unfavorably, 82 percent of non-Mormons don't know enough about him to rate him either way. And that 46 percent likes him; 41 percent have a favorable opinion, while just 5 percent dislike him.

And that's the big reason why McMullin is in the hunt. He trails Trump by just 6 points among Mormons, 38-32, but is far better-liked by them. While 41 percent of Utah Mormons like McMullin, just 19 percent like Trump — even as the GOP nominee is far better-known. Fully 69 percent of Utah Mormons dislike Trump.

What's pretty clear right now is that, if casting a ballot for Evan McMullin weren't essentially a protest vote, he'd likely be winning Utah and depriving Trump of 6 electoral votes right now.

He still may do it, of course. It just depends on how much Mormons decide they really dislike Trump.