President Trump may have a problem in the American Southwest. And contrary to popular belief, it is not just liberal Californian exiles fleeing to states like Nevada and Arizona or a high number of Democratic-leaning Latino voters in those states.
No, the problem is different: Mormons. And most specifically, Mormon women.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is most strongly associated with Utah, but large numbers of Mormons also live in surrounding states, including the swing states Arizona and Nevada. The church has about 430,000 members in Arizona and about 184,000 in Nevada. That’s a lot of votes — and a lot of those votes belong to Latter-day Saints women, whom data show are really not very keen on Trump.
According to Jacob Rugh of Brigham Young University, a Voter Study Group from June 2020 showed that among an admittedly small group of 160 respondents, just 42 percent of Mormon women planned to vote for Trump, compared with nearly 75 percent of Mormon men. The trend is even more pronounced among younger Mormon women: Rugh surveyed nearly 400 of his former students in May 2020; six in 10 women aged 18 to 29 said they would vote for Joe Biden. In that age cohort, about four in 10 Mormon men were similarly inclined to vote for Biden.
That underlines a broader point: Mormons as a group do not approve of the president as much as they have for other Republicans — and given the tight races in those Southwest swing states, that could be a real obstacle for Trump.
Mormons are famously centered around the nuclear family. Ethics — in the home and in government — are a priority for Latter-day Saints women. Jennifer Walker Thomas, director of Nonpartisanship for Mormon Women for Ethical Government, notes that Mormon women “want leaders who will act with decency, humanity, compassion and justice. And they have lost patience with those who will not.”
Mormons have also been treated as “others” in the eyes of too many Americans because the church once endorsed polygamy (the church has barred polygamy, though my Mormon ancestors engaged in it).
Furthermore, Mormons are very engaged with the world and foreigners, with members typically undertaking two-year missions, often abroad; over the course of their lives, many church members go on additional missions. Walk around Temple Square in Salt Lake City, and you’re unlikely to find a single language not spoken proficiently by at least one of the volunteers walking the square and engaging visitors.
So Mormons' views on immigration, welcoming the stranger and engaging with people who are “different” don’t jibe well with Trumpism. The Latter-day Saints Church has, not surprisingly, condemned Trump’s statements on immigration and religious freedom, including on family separations at the border. (This is perhaps even less surprising as the church attracts more Latino members.)
The condemnations have resonated with rank-and-file church women like Sara Nix, from Las Vegas, who said: “Within my community, it appears I’m not the only one frustrated with the president’s rhetoric and policies, as I’ve heard from Republican friends who find Mr. Trump to be more than just uncivil but believe he is on the verge of inciting violence.” She is planning to vote for Biden.
In 2016, Latter-day Saints antipathy and skepticism toward Trump gave an opening for both Evan McMullin and Gary Johnson, third-party candidates, to grab votes that would typically have gone to the Republican nominee. Sure, Trump won Utah — but with a meager 45 percent of the vote. Mitt Romney, a devout Mormon well-regarded by fellow members of the church, carried it in 2012 with over 70 percent.
Romney himself is a key to how a lot of church voters, especially women, view Trump. The resounding refrain that anyone who has ever talked to a female Mormon voter, or a female Mormon relative, has heard about Romney is that he is “such a good man.”
Romney has said he will not vote for Trump. Jeff Flake, the former Arizona senator and a fellow Mormon, has endorsed Biden.
It’s not just prominent Mormons like them objecting to Trump. The former Arizona Republican state senator Bob Worsley, the founder of SkyMall, has endorsed Biden and is reportedly publicly organizing for him. Worsley has said, “I’ve never voted for a Democrat in my life, but we think this man is an abomination.”
In 2016, Trump won Arizona by only 3.5 percent. The polling average for the state has Biden up by about three points.
Post-convention, publicly released polls of Arizona voters whose details are accessible and that recorded support for each candidate by party ID — from New York Times/Siena, Fox News, OH Predictive Insights and CBS News — have shown Biden attracting more support from Republicans than Trump attracts from Democrats. A private rolling poll of Arizona voters recently conducted by a nonpartisan pollster has found the same thing.
Trump does seem particularly abhorrent to these voters. As Emma Petty Addams of Mormon Women for Ethical Government put it, “While our members fall all over the political spectrum, we have found that many continue to become more frustrated with rhetoric and policies from this president’s administration and how it doesn’t match their values.”
In Nevada and Arizona, Latter-day Saint women may prove to be the president’s undoing.
Liz Mair, a strategist for campaigns by Scott Walker, Roy Blunt, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina and Rick Perry, is the founder and president of Mair Strategies.