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Why Utah Stands Out Even in an Unpredictable Presidential Year

Recent polls point to an electoral college map that is decidedly scrambled. Yet Utah represents one of the most stark examples.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton boards her plane at Charlotte Douglas International Airport while campaigning Sept. 8, 2016, in Charlotte, North Carolina.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP - Getty Images

As the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign approaches its last 50 days, both major parties are anxious about the unprecedented and unpredictable nature of the race.

The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist polls point to an electoral college map that is decidedly scrambled — with recently blue states like New Hampshire and Nevada trending Trump, and Clinton making inroads in reliably red states like Arizona and Georgia.

Still, one of the most shocking examples of how this year is like no other is Utah, a state Gallup once declared the "most Republican" in America, that could fall in the Democratic column in November.

For weeks, several articles and some polls have suggested that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump could have a hard time carrying the state, in part because of his apparently tempestuous relationship with the Mormon community. But Utah hasn't gone blue since Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory in 1964.

"People don’t understand the Mormon thing. I do. I get it."

During the Democratic primaries, the thousands of Utahns who turned out to see Sen. Bernie Sanders in March suggested there was an audience, or at least an open-mindedness, to Democratic agenda items. According to Tim Chambless, a University of Utah professor of Political Science at the Hinckley Institute of Politics, if the mostly young, first-time voters who overwhelmingly caucused for Sanders show their support for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, it could make the difference on Election Day.

For his part, Trump's struggles to appeal to Utah's Mormon population highlight the potential hurdles he faces in the state and potentially beyond.

"People don’t understand the Mormon thing. I do. I get it," he insisted in a 2014 New York Times interview, in which he also argued that Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election in part because Christian voters were "put off" by his Mormonism.

Although there has been some hand-wringing over whether the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints overestimates their population, there is no question that there is a uniquely heavy concentration of Mormons in Utah. Recent estimates suggest that while their portion of the population has dropped, it remains in the 60 percent range (a whopping 2 million-plus members), with the next largest representation, in Idaho, being a distant second with roughly 19 percent.

Meanwhile, Nevada, which was expected to be a crucial swing state this election cycle, has a Mormon population around 4 percent, which is similar to the margin that currently separates Trump and Clinton in most state polls there.

The Mormon population appears to present a perfect storm of affinities that are anathema to Trump's brand:

  • They tend to be disproportionately higher educated, a voting bloc that has resisted Trump to date.
  • Besides their stances on abortion and same-sex marriage, they tend to be much more moderate on issues like immigration and religious tolerance.
  • Speaking of which, Trump's oft-proposed Muslim ban is said to be eerily reminiscent of the persecution Mormons were subjected to centuries ago. And his appeals to evangelicals, who are frequently hostile towards Mormonism, haven't helped either.
  • Mormons purportedly place a priority on the personal values of a candidate — and Trump's history of marital infidelities and tabloid drama hasn't gone over well.
  • The Mormon community also is said to prefer more mild-mannered politicians, hence their embrace of former Gov. Jon Huntsman, and so Trump's bombast has backfired with them.
  • Trump's very personal animus directed at Romney, arguably the most prominent Mormon figure in America, has also not endeared him to the community. He has also clashed with other prominent Mormon politicians like Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).
  • The GOP nominee has been on record as blaming Romney's faith in part for his 2012 defeat.

Trump had one of his worst showings of the 2016 GOP primary race in Utah, finishing a distant third to Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. John Kasich. And in November, he will not just be competing against Clinton, and Libertarian Gary Johnson, but independent candidate Evan McMullin, as well. (Green Party candidate Jill Stein has yet to qualify for the ballot there.)

While Clinton has reached out to Mormon community with an op-ed in the Deseret News, it could be Salt Lake City's increasingly diverse, and decidedly less Mormon, population that may be the biggest benefit to her.

The city not only boasts an openly gay mayor and an increasingly non-white, multi-lingual population, but its economic success in the tech industry (some have already christened Utah the "next Silicon Valley") has also attracted younger, more progressive-minded voters from out of state. That group will arguably shape the political identity of the state in coming generations.

Related: DNC Expands Footprint in Arizona, Georgia, Utah

The shifting population is a trend not unlike what we've seen in several other traditionally red states around the country like Virginia and Colorado — where an influx of college-educated, left-leaning voters into more urban and suburban centers has exerted more influence in our national elections.

Meanwhile, McMullin, who was born in Provo and is Mormon himself, is expected to over-perform in Utah, even though he has failed to gain traction nationally.

A recent op-ed in the Mormon-owned Deseret News encouraged readers to "vote Utah's conscience" by getting behind McMullin's candidacy.

"[McMullin] gives political cover for traditional Mormon Republicans who can’t bring themselves to vote for Donald Trump or who are waiting for what Mitt Romney might suggest," saidChambless. "He can't win, but he gives Republican Mormons an out."

"[McMullin] gives political cover for traditional Mormon Republicans who can’t bring themselves to vote for Donald Trump or who are waiting for what Mitt Romney might suggest."

Despite having openly asked supporters at a Utah rally if they were "sure" Romney was really Mormon and despite his personal unpopularity, Trump still maintains a solid — albeit not insurmountable — lead in the state. And ironically his strongest support in the state still comes from self-identified Mormons.

This perhaps should not come as a surprise since the Pew Research Center determined in 2014 that Mormons are the most Republican religious group in America. Still, Chambless, who has lived in Utah for the last 45 years, argues that the state is evolving so fast and the situation on the ground is so fluid, that anything could happen in November.

"My strong sense is that Donald Trump’s numbers are very soft beyond the 14 percent [he received in the GOP primary]," he said. "I could see a shift of 15 to 20 percent of voters who usually vote Republican would follow the guidance of Mitt Romney."

Related: A Mitt Romney Gathering Proceeds Under Shadow of Trump

Chambless believes that if Romney goes further than he already has, and formally endorsed someone other than Trump, it would significantly move the needle — as would a personal campaign appearance by Clinton. The former secretary of state has one campaign office in Utah and has previously dispatched her husband and daughter to stump for her.

"She’s gotta come to Utah, not just fly over between Colorado and Nevada," said Chambless.

The Clinton campaign told NBC News that there aren't any imminent plans for the Democratic nominee to make an in-person appeal to Utah voters.

It may still take a few decades before Utah could conceivably become a full-blown swing state but, in the meantime, Chambless predicts that the state's voters will make their choice in November based on questions of the candidates' personal temperaments more than anything else.

"Donald Trump is the wild card variable here," he said. "He is so offensive to so many Utah voters ... how he expresses himself, the profanities, the innuendos. Here in Utah, there is an effort to have common courtesy, even if you disagrees with people. There is an expression of respect, even if you disagree with them."