The new Salt Lake Tribune and Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah poll is just the latest piece of evidence that Donald Trump has a major problem with the Mormon community. The survey of Utahns shows both Clinton and Trump tied at 35% and Libertarian Gary Johnson getting 13%. My guess is that Clinton’s chances in Utah, which are still pretty remote, will hinge on the strength of former New Mexico Governor Johnson. I say that because I doubt Clinton can do a whole lot better in Utah than the 35% she’s already pulling.
A little history: in 2012, with Mitt Romney on the ticket, President Obama got 25% of the vote in Utah. In 2008, Obama did better, getting 34.4% against John McCain. Both Kerry and Gore got 26%, and Bill Clinton managed 34% in his successful 1996 re-election campaign. So, in a sense, Hillary Clinton’s 35% isn’t all that impressive. Yes, it’s better than a Democrat has done in the Beehive State in recent years, but it also seems to be about the high-water mark for a Democrat there, at least in a conventional election, which this is not.
There’s evidence, though, that the Republican grip on Utah has weakened.
Just last week, a SurveyUSA poll of the state’s 4th Congressional District showed incumbent Republican Mia Love losing her rematch against Democrat Doug Owens.
Owens, an attorney who lost to Love in 2014, notched 51 percent in the SurveyUSA poll while Love, the former mayor of Saratoga Springs, received 45 percent. Only 4 percent of respondents said they were either undecided or would support a third-party candidate.
The results surprised both campaigns, with Love’s camp immediately questioning their validity.
“I don’t believe the numbers, to be honest with you,” said Dave Hansen, Love’s campaign strategist. “The numbers just do not make sense.”
As far back as March, there was evidence that Trump would fare poorly in Utah against Clinton, as Deseret News reported at the time:
“I believe Donald Trump could lose Utah. If you lose Utah as a Republican, there is no hope,” said former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, a top campaign adviser to the GOP’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney.
The poll found that may well be true. Utah voters said they would reject Trump, the GOP frontrunner, whether former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is the Democratic candidate on the general election ballot.
While Clinton was only slightly ahead of Trump — 38 percent to 36 percent — Sanders, a self-declared Democratic socialist, holds a substantial lead — 48 percent to 37 percent over the billionaire businessman and reality TV star among likely Utah voters.
“Wow. Wow. That’s surprising,” said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. “Any matchup in which Democrats are competitive in the state of Utah is shocking.”
So, this shocking news is based on persistent evidence.
I suppose Mitt Romney’s vituperative opposition to Trump has some influence on Utah Republicans, and it probably doesn’t help Trump there that his campaign chairman Paul Manafort went on television yesterday and called Romney a coward.
But maybe Utah still isn’t the likeliest place for Trump’s weakness with Mormons to cost him electoral votes. The Mormons are a key electoral constituency for the Republicans in Colorado, Nevada, and Arizona, all of which are more traditionally competitive than Utah. All of those states also have large Latino populations, which may turn out in larger than normal numbers and vote against Trump by a very lopsided margin.
My guess is that Trump won’t even attempt an Electoral College strategy that relies on flipping Colorado or Nevada into the red column, but he should be very concerned about losing Arizona. As I wrote a week ago, Arizona Senator John McCain is already acting as though he fully expects Trump to not only lose his state but to serve as a major drag on his own reelection prospects.
The political class hasn’t been prescient at all about this election so far, but there’s a growing consensus that Trump is going to do so poorly and do so much damage to downticket Republicans that all the Democrats need to do is get out of the GOP’s way and they’ll win a landslide election in the Senate and possibly the House.
And that may well be true, but I’m not convinced that a play-it-safe strategy will maximize their gains. On some level, the Democrats need to be responsive to the very grumpy and substantively dissatisfied mood of the country, which has been reflected on their side of the aisle by the surprising strength of the Bernie Sanders campaign.
As for Hillary and Utah, normally with polls this close, it would merit active campaigning in the state. I just don’t know if that would actually help in this case.
The way I look at it, though, is that in Utah she is playing with the house’s money. She doesn’t need the state’s electoral votes, so she can gamble free of consequence. Why not go there and make her pitch?