For Utahns, impact of Trump tax report may be in the eye of the beholder

(Evan Vucci | AP) President Donald Trump speaks during an event in the Rose Garden of the White House on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020, in Washington.

State Sen. Ralph Okerlund — one of President Donald Trump’s earliest supporters in Utah — offered a typical reaction for die-hard GOP Trump enthusiasts in Utah to a New York Times report that Trump has paid almost no federal taxes for years.

“I certainly believe that [Trump] is right when he talks about it being ‘fake news,’ ” Okerlund, R-Monroe, said. “The media obviously has been at full-sprint mode trying to get rid of him for his entire term,” and he largely dismisses the story as another example.

For a contrasting and typical response from a Utah Democrat, listen to what 3rd Congressional District candidate Devin Thorpe said.

“Most Utahns think we should obey the law. Thoughtful people now are taking a hard look at whether or not the president has done that,” Thorpe said. “Most Utahns agree that we should be paying a fair share. ... I think Utahns agree across the board the president has not paid his fair share.”

Okerlund and Thorpe agree on one thing about the news story: it likely won’t change many voters’ minds in heavily Republican Utah.

David Magleby, a professor emeritus of political science at Brigham Young University, says research through the years suggests why: Voters generally hear only what they want to hear about their favorite politicians through an effect called “selective perception and selective attention.”

He explains, “Selective attention means that it [the tax story] will have less of an effect on Trump supporters because they think this is ‘fake news.’ This is The New York Times, it’s not Fox News. So, they’re not even paying attention to it.”

For those who hear about it anyway from friends or other sources, selective perception means, “They’re going to recast the story somehow,” Magleby said, such as by calling it “fake news.”

In short, the story won’t change voting decision for die-hard supporters of Trump or Biden.

“Most of the Trump voters will kind of tune it out and say, ‘We’re getting the Supreme Court. We don’t care if he pays taxes,’” Magleby said. “For Democrats, it’ll have the reverse effect. It will strengthen their conviction that Trump is a scoundrel.”

But Magleby says the story could have some effect on the 21.5% of Utah voters who voted for independent Evan McMullin in 2016. They were often Republicans who disliked Trump but also had trouble voting for Democrat Hillary Clinton. With McMullin in the race, Trump won Utah with a pluraility of 45.5%.

“I will suspect that for any Evan McMullin voter, the news stories today repulses them,” Magleby said.

“The very interesting question is this: Does this mean Trump may carry Utah again, but with less than 50% of the vote?” he said. “That was a shocker to people nationally that Utah did not give more than 50% of the vote to Donald Trump. And it was a shocker to Donald Trump. It’s an embarrassment to him.”

Utah has not voted for a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and the Republican nominee generally wins here by landslide margins. Democrat Bill Clinton, who won the White House in 1992, actually finished third in Utah in that election, behind George H.W. Bush and independent Ross Perot.

Magleby said news of Trump’s taxes may encourage some former McMullin voters to support Biden, a minor party candidate or simply not vote.

Some politicians who may need support from those “Evan McMullin voters” chose not to respond, or not say much, to Salt Lake Tribune inquiries about the Times report that Trump paid only $750 in federal tax the year he was elected, and paid no tax at all for many years — largely because his businesses lost money. He also made questionable deductions, such as $75,000 for haircuts for television appearances.

Democrat Rep. Ben McAdams, who won his swing 4th Congressional District by fewer than 700 votes and is in a tight race, said only, “Utah voters will make up their own minds about presidential politics” and then listed what he is focusing on in his congressional work.

His opponent, Republican Burgess Owens, a big Trump supporter, did not respond to a request for comment.

Also among those who chose not to respond immediately was Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, who was attacked for supposedly paying less than his fair share when he was the GOP presidential nominee in 2012 — after paying $1.9 million, or about 14% of his income then.

But some die-hard supporters or critics of Trump did speak out.

GOP Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, an early Trump supporter, said, “There’s an [IRS] audit going on. I think we need to wait until we actually have findings of fact rather than just media reports.” He said the tax story is akin to many “October surprises” that may not be accurate that appear before elections.

Similarly, Okerlund said, “I just don’t think we know enough about this story yet. I think there’s still a lot to be found out. This is just among a long line of attacks that have been going on his [Trump’s] entire term.”

Meanwhile, Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant tweeted Monday, “In 2018 the average American made about $59,485 & paid $17,596 in taxes. #Trump made $434m in 2018 (while president, mind you). We don’t know how much he paid in taxes in ’18, but in ’16 & ’17, he paid $750. That’s less than Melania’s I Don’t Care jacket sold for on eBay.”

Kael Weston, the Democratic candidate running against Rep. Chris Stewart (who did not respond to inquiries), similarly said, “I paid a lot more in taxes this year, and I’m not making very much money.” He said it shows why Trump refused, unlike every major party presidential candidate since Richard Nixon, to voluntarily disclose his tax information.

“He wasn’t in line with what I believe someone seeking the highest office in our land should be doing, which is be fully transparent,” he said. “It’s a legitimate issue, but whether it moves a lot of voters or not, I don’t know.”

Democrat Darren Parry, running in the 1st Congressional District against Republican Blake Moore (who did not respond to inquiries), said, “We all pay taxes. So I think that common sense will tell you that there is something [wrong] there. ... But I don’t think it will matter to his supporters.”