Trump, Biden seek Latter-day Saint voters in battleground states

(Ross D. Franklin | AP) Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the "Latter-day Saints for Trump" Coalition launch event Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, in Mesa, Ariz.

Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Arizona on Tuesday in an effort to persuade a small but potentially powerful coalition to give President Donald Trump four more years in office — members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

During a 40-minute speech at a hotel ballroom in Mesa, Pence sought to contrast the Trump administration’s support for religious liberty and the “sanctity of life” against what he called Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s “socialist” agenda.

“On issues most important to people of faith across this country — issues like life and religious liberty — Joe Biden and the radical left are deeply out of step with the American people,” Pence argued. “I’m proud to tell you, though, this president has stood for the religious freedom of every American of every faith every day of this administration.”

The Trump campaign’s special attention to Latter-day Saints in this election cycle comes after the candidate struggled to gain a foothold among the group in his 2016 election.

During that campaign, Trump acknowledged he had a “tremendous problem in Utah,” where many of the state’s 2.1 million members of the LDS faith expressed discomfort with his brash style and rhetoric about women and immigrants. And while Trump did win the Beehive State, he earned the lowest percentage of the vote among GOP presidential candidates in Utah since 1992.

Nationally, Trump received 61% of the LDS votes. That was the strongest support among any religious demographic except for Evangelicals, according to exit poll data from the Pew Research Center. But it was still far below what is expected for some of the GOP’s most tried and true voters.

Rep. Kim Coleman, a West Jordan Republican who this year ran an unsuccessful congressional campaign in the state’s 4th District, was at the Latter-day Saints for Trump Coalition launch event in Arizona on Tuesday.

“So much about President Trump and Vice President Pence’s agenda [is] consistent with and crucial to some of the things that matter most to Latter-day Saints: faith, family, freedom, pro-life and religious liberty,” she said in a statement. “It’s a natural coalition, and I’m sure it will grow and have an impact on this election. I’m excited to be a part of it.”

But as the Trump campaign seeks to shore up support from this group, it’s unlikely that Latter-day Saints in deep-red Utah will receive the same kind of attention as those in Arizona, which is a battleground state. Both campaigns expect Utah to be in Trump’s column on Election Day.

Maintaining support among even the handful of members of the religious community in Arizona could make a difference for Trump, said Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah.

“I think the big thing [the Trump campaign is] interested in doing is probably not trying to convert anybody at this point but really trying to kind of remind the group that is generally reliably Republican why they are reliably Republican,” Burbank said.

Jeff Merchant, chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, said he sees Trump’s effort to court Latter-day Saint voters as a “gigantic red flag” that shows the Republican Party and the president know “they are in really, really big trouble.”

“They recognize that they need to start winning groups that aren’t going to be voting for them because of the approach they’ve taken and the type of people they are,” he said.

But Trump isn’t the only candidate courting members of the faith. Biden is also making a play for Latter-day Saint voters in an election some Democrats see an opportunity to draw in Republicans who have become disillusioned.

(Matt Rourke | AP file photo) In this March 12, 2020 photo, Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Del.

Rob Taber, national co-chairman of the LDS Democrats of America, said Biden has held off-the-record listening sessions with members of the faith in recent months. And he called the campaign’s efforts “the most sustained faith outreach that we’ve seen basically ever from a Democratic presidential campaign.”

He believes that Latter-day Saints are looking for a candidate who suits their values and that when it comes time to vote for either Biden or Trump, they may fill out their ballot for the Democrat.

“The Trump faith campaign is certainly there and they’re active” in courting Latter-day Saints, he said. “But we have his record for four years and the last time he was at a church he teargassed peaceful demonstrators to get there. We like to say, ‘By their fruits we shall know them.’ And we now have four years of fruits of fear and division and hatred and bigotry and that’s really soured a lot of LDS voters.”

Joshua Dickson, the national faith engagement director for the Biden campaign, said in a written statement to The Salt Lake Tribune that the former vice president’s vision for America “is rooted in values that resonate deeply with people of faith — loving our neighbor, treating each other with dignity and respect, and ensuring families and everyone in our country has the opportunity to thrive and establish self-reliance.”

“Latter-day Saints see strong contrast between Vice President Biden’s family-first, opportunity-focused agenda and President Trump’s continued attempts to separate children from their parents, put kids in cages, abuse his power, deny refuge to the stranger, and normalize racism and incivility,” Dickson continued.

Like with Trump’s campaign, Merchant said he expects Biden’s team will dedicate most of its resources to Latter-day Saints who live in places like Arizona and New Mexico.

In those states, convincing even a small number of Latter-day Saints voters to cross the aisle could make a big difference in flipping the state blue, he said. That’s not happening in conservative Utah.

“Right now — today, if we’re looking at 2020 — there are areas that with a small effort they can get a big reward. And Utah just is going to take a little bit more time, a little more energy and a little more money,” Merchant said. “In 2024, 2028, I think you’re going to see more of an effort here and I think it’s going to pay off.”

But Taber argues that neither Utah nor Latter-day Saints voters more broadly need to vote blue in large numbers to make a statement to party leaders that there’s a need for change.

“Even if Biden doesn’t flip Utah this year, if it’s much closer than normal for a presidential election, that really should wake the national Republican Party up and say, ‘Oh, we should stop taking LDS voters for granted,’” he said. “If the Latter-day Saints vote splits 60/40 instead of 80/20, [they’ll realize], ‘Oh people have a mind of their own. Instead of assuming they’re going to volunteer and vote and donate to us, we should stop and listen.‘”

Pence will be traveling to Utah at least once this campaign season. He’ll debate Biden’s newly picked vice presidential nominee, Sen. Kamala Harris, at the University of Utah on Oct. 7.

Pence welcomed Harris to the race at his event Tuesday, at the same time criticizing her as a member of the “radical left,” which he said has an agenda to increase taxes, open borders, socialize medicine and provide “abortion on demand.”

“My message to the Democratic candidate for vice president: Congratulations. I’ll see you in Salt Lake City,” he said.

The vice president closed his remarks with an encouragement to Latter-day Saints to “bow the head and bend the knee” in prayer over the next few months — not necessarily for a specific candidate or cause but for America itself.

“To all the Latter-day Saints for Trump I say thank you for your support and I leave here with confidence that with your continued support and prayers ... and with four more years of President Donald Trump in the White House, we’re going to make America more prosperous than ever before,” Pence said. “We’re going to make America safer than ever before. We’re going to heal our land and we’re going to make America great again.”

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