WASHINGTON, October 28, 2016 – Three months ago, Evan McMullin came from nowhere to jump into the presidential race. Launching a bid just three months before an election is absurdly quixotic. He seemed certain to go back to nowhere just as quickly as he’d left it.
But this is an unusual year. Something strange has happened in Utah. The state’s reliably Republican, Mormon (LDS) population has decided that they don’t like GOP candidate Donald Trump. And McMullin is a conservative, Utah Mormon.
LDS-owned Deseret News published an editorial in early October calling on Trump to drop out of the race. The Deseret News has been neutral on partisan politics for 80 years, but after Trump’s crotch-grab video emerged, they’d had enough.
It wasn’t just because of that video. Trump was in trouble in Utah long before October. Unlike Evangelical Christians, another reliably Republican group of voters, Mormons never warmed to Trump.
In March, 2012 presidential candidate and Mormon Mitt Romney delivered a speech at the University of Utah that captured Mormon feelings toward Trump. He called Trump a con man, a fake and a fraud. “Dishonesty is Trump’s hallmark,” said Romney
Mormons are socially conservative and share some objectives with Christian conservatives, but they are morally more austere, less approving of braggadocio and glitz, positively intolerant of adultery, crudity and sexual objectification of women.
They also count a growing number of Latin American members among their top leadership. Thousands of young LDS men and women depart from the U.S. to Latin America every year to serve for up to two years as missionaries. The LDS church isn’t interested in seeing a wall on America’s southern border. Nor, as members of a church that was heavily persecuted in the 19th century and whose members are keenly aware that many Evangelical Christians don’t like or trust them, are they inclined to jump on an anti-Muslim bandwagon.
Trump has never enjoyed the traditional double-digit lead Republican presidential candidates get over their Democratic rivals in Utah. He remained in a close race with Hillary Clinton, putting Utah in play for the first time in decades. And then McMullin gained traction.
Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson hoped to capitalize on anti-Trump feeling among western conservatives, especially in New Mexico, Utah and Idaho, all part of the “Mormon corridor.” But Johnson’s campaign has languished, fading after some encouraging polls in the spring. In Utah, his support is just 5 percent.
McMullin’s support in Utah has surged. It stands now at 29 percent, with Trump at 30 percent and Clinton at 28. McMullin has a real chance of winning Utah.
Trump’s supporters are furious. Fox’s Lou Dobbs called McMullin “a globalist, Romney and Mormon mafia tool.” Sean Hannity is “pissed.” Social media are full of sudden contempt for Mormon “sheeple” and suckers.
The word is that a vote for a third-party candidate is a vote for Clinton. No matter how distasteful you find Trump, it’s either Trump or Clinton, and Clinton will remake the Supreme Court in her own image for a generation. If you vote for anyone but Trump, you assent to the destruction of America.
Trump is running the kind of campaign that populist, antiestablishment, anti-intellectual conservatives have wanted for decades. Trump isn’t an effete, establishment conservative like George H.W. Bush. He isn’t a Washington insider like John McCain, nor is he tainted by the sin of compromise that clings to Mitt Romney like the stench of betrayal.
Trump’s crude vulgarity, his gross ignorance of foreign affairs and the Constitution, and his bombastic contempt for foreigners, intellectuals and dissenters aren’t a problem for his supporters. They might even be a design feature.
McMullin is a conservative, not a populist out to tear down Washington. He seems to believe that government is an exercise in politics, not warfare. His temperament is much more suited to Utah’s political culture than Trump’s is.
A tossed coin almost always lands as heads or tails, but if the circumstances are just right, it can land on its edge. The hope of some McMullin supporters is that the electoral coin will land on its edge, McMullin winning Utah’s electoral votes and Trump and Clinton coming short of an electoral college majority.
It could happen, but it almost certainly won’t. The odds are too strongly in Clinton’s favor. In any event, if Clinton wins, it won’t be because McMullin threw Utah or any other state to her. It will be because Trump was a deplorable candidate, if not a human being.
McMullin is not a spoiler. He’s an option for principled conservatives who won’t throw their votes away out of fear, voters who want to stand for something and not against it. If that’s mafia thinking, America could use a godfather.