The last time Utah gave its Electoral College votes to a Democratic presidential candidate was 1964. This was also the last time the Republican Party nominated a nationalist candidate who was unpalatable to a majority of the population.
Like Donald Trump in 2016, the underlying premise of the 1964 campaign was that Barry Goldwater would lead the nation into nuclear disaster.
What, then, can Utah tell us about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign?
For seven of the past ten presidential elections, Utah has been the most Republican state in the nation. The Republican candidate wins an average of 65% of the vote versus just 28% for the Democratic candidate.
In fact, during the 40-odd-year period from 1976 to 2012, the best result the Democrats achieved was in 2008, when Barack Obama won 34%. This means that the Republican nominee usually wins Utah by an average of 37 points, although in 2012 Mitt Romney won by 48 points.
How is it possible, then, that several polls have Hillary Clinton in a competitive contest with Trump? And can Clinton become the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to win Utah? A summary of recent polling in Utah presents a wide span of results, with the most generous being from the Republican-learning Public Policy Polling (PPP), which has Trump in front by 20 points.
If we exclude Romney’s 2012 result from the 40-year average, then support as the Republican nominee in 2016 has decreased by 46% – and that is based on Trump’s most-favourable poll. Three days later, PPP published another poll showing Trump’s lead had fallen to 15 points. Where has the Republican vote gone?
Over the past ten years, membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) increased by 45.5% to be the second-fastest-growing religion in the United States behind Islam (which increased 66.7%).
Utah is the geographical home of the Church of LDS, with almost 70% of the state’s population identifying as Mormon. This is important because in August, Trump named Stephen K. Bannon, chairman of the conservative news organisation Breitbart, to be his new campaign chief.
Three days later, Breitbart published an editorial by Trump campaign surrogate Tom Tancredo that attacked the Mormon church for appearing to be against Trump’s hardline immigration policies. Tancredo wrote:
The Mormon church supports open borders and lax enforcement of immigration laws.
Four years after Romney became the first Mormon to be nominated as a major party presidential candidate, Trump’s campaign is attacking the Mormon Church, leaving many Utah Republicans looking for an alternative.
An examination of Utah voter registration by party over the past year reveals a very interesting picture. As at August 22, 2016, 78.5% of Utah’s registered voters are affiliated with the Republican Party. Factoring in population growth since December 30, 2015, the number of registered Republicans has increased 9.2%.
Although this may initially look good for the party, over the same period, the number of registered Democrats has increased 16.7%, and registered third-party voters has increased 18.9%, while non-party-affiliated voters have actually decreased by 4.5%. This indicates that many Utah voters are looking for a Republican alternative. So the question therefore is: why?
Despite Utah’s position as the most Republican state in the nation, there are significant pockets of Democratic support, most notably in Salt Lake City. Over the last 12 months, new voter registration for non-Republican parties is almost double that for new Republican support, so voters are clearly looking for an alternative to Trump.
Does this mean Clinton could win Utah?
The simple answer is no. The Democratic vote is sure to increase in 2016 compared with 2012, but it will not be enough for victory. Rather, disenchanted Republican voters are more likely to support a third party, such as the Libertarian Party, or independent Evan McMullin.
The last occasions there was a significant third-party candidacy was conservative-leaning independent campaigns of H. Ross Perot in 1996 and 1992. In 1996, the Republican vote decreased 15% from its 40-year average (69% to 54%), with the Democratic vote increasing just 5% from its 40-year average (28% to 33%); the rest of the vote went to Perot. In 1992, the results were even more stark, with the Republican vote dropping 24%, with all of it going to Perot.
What this all means is that the gap between Trump and Clinton is almost certain to narrow, but as Trump loses Republican votes, Clinton is unlikely to gain them. The beneficiary in Utah will almost certainly be non-major parties, and as the third-party vote increases, the closer the Republican-Democrat margin becomes.
There is a more worrying factor for Republicans, though. As mentioned, the LDS Church is the second-fastest-growing in the US, and there is now a geographic region known as the Mormon Corridor. As the popularity of the church increases, its population reach is spreading beyond Utah’s borders and into neighbouring states such as Colorado, Nevada, and Arizona.
Interestingly, Colorado and Nevada are two of America’s five so-called “swing states”. Meanwhile, Arizona is another traditionally Republican state where Clinton’s campaign now appears competitive. In addition to their growth in Mormon residents, these three states have something else in common: a large Hispanic population.
For Trump to have any chance at victory in November, he needs to not only retain Romney’s 2012 vote, but also increase his vote share in other demographics, particularly among Hispanics, who traditionally favour Democrats. But Trump’s campaign has further alienated the latter demographic while simultaneously estranging a traditionally supportive one.