SALT LAKE CITY — The unity of Republican voters in heavily conservative Utah has been splintered by Donald Trump’s crude behavior and volatile campaign, creating an unprecedented sense of uncertainty in a must-win state for the GOP candidate.
Trump may still eke out a victory to win Utah’s six electoral votes, but aversion to the brash billionaire has soared in Utah following the release of a 2005 recording of him making predatory comments about women. A growing number of the state’s mostly Mormon voters are considering casting ballots instead for third-party candidates Evan McMullin and Gary Johnson.
That opens the possibility that four presidential candidates could each earn at least 10 percent of the vote in the state, a rare occurrence in presidential elections. The result could be an improbable victory by Democrat Hillary Clinton, if she captures just one-third of the state’s votes. Democratic candidates have achieved this before, but it was never enough for them to win.
It’s difficult to see Trump losing Utah and still winning the White House. Even if he wins Utah, he has a narrow path for capturing 270 electoral votes in the state-by-state contest for the presidency. Losing a state considered solidly Republican may effectively block that path.
While Clinton may benefit from disenchantment with Trump, she’s not the candidate winning over Trump defectors: Conservative independent McMullin is the one enjoying a surge of attention. He’s a Brigham Young University graduate and a former CIA officer, investment banker and congressional aide
Despite about half the state not knowing who he is, McMullin has a profile that reassures voters as a Utah-born, straight-arrow Mormon Republican, said Quin Monson, a longtime political analyst and founder of Y2K Analytics. The polling firm surveyed 500 likely voters this week and found McMullin at 22 percent, narrowly trailing Trump and Clinton, who were tied at 26 percent each. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
A Monmouth University poll of 403 Utah likely voters conducted this week suggested Trump remains ahead of Clinton, 34 percent to 28 percent, but also showed McMullin closing in at 20 percent, despite being unknown to 66 percent of voters. That poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
The last time four candidates pulled in at least 10 percent of the vote in any state was 1912, when Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Republican William H. Taft, Progressive Theodore Roosevelt and Socialist Party candidate Eugene Debs did so in Nevada, Washington, Montana, Arizona and Idaho.
Scott Woolston, a Mormon father of seven and a Republican, is among those considering McMullin, saying the recording reaffirmed his suspicions that Trump’s personal morality and core values are lacking.
“I’ve looked at what’s-his-name, Evan McMullin. He has some things I really like, but there’s a couple of issues I disagree with him on,” said Woolston, 35, a mechanical engineer. “But on most things, we overlap fairly well.”
After the release of the recording on Friday, Utah leaders led a national charge to drop support for Trump, with Gov. Gary Herbert rescinding his support. Calls followed from Sen. Mike Lee, Reps. Jason Chaffetz, Chris Stewart and Mia Love, and former Gov. Jon Huntsman for Trump to abandon his campaign.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declined to get involved, but the church-owned Deseret News newspaper published a scathing editorial Saturday calling for Trump to step aside, saying, “What oozes from this audio is evil.” The newspaper hadn’t weighed in on a presidential campaign in 80 years.
The state’s disdain for Trump has been on display throughout the election cycle, highlighted by Utah’s caucuses in March, when Trump earned only 14 percent of the votes. Helping to fuel that is Utah’s favorite politician, Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee and a leading critic of Trump.
Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, told an ABC affiliate in Salt Lake City on Thursday that the campaign is adjusting its strategy for Utah since the state could now be in play. He wouldn’t say if he or Clinton will come to Utah before the election but said the campaign is reassessing travel plans.
Yet despite pervasive anti-Trump sentiment and interest in McMullin, the fact remains that no Democratic presidential candidate has won in Utah since 1964. Republicans outnumber Democrats four-to-one among the state’s 1.3 million active voters, and the last four Republican presidential nominees have won the state by an average of 41 percentage points.
Not all of Utah’s Republican leaders have abandoned Trump. The chairman of Utah’s Republican Party, James Evans, said in a statement this week that Trump’s crude comments in the 2005 video were made “when he was in the environment of Hollywood and the political left.”
Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said it’s a long shot for Clinton or McMullin to carry the state because many are likely to vote for Trump since there are core issues bigger than Trump.
Mike Taylor, 63, fits that description. “I may just plug my nose and vote for Trump, but frankly, that’s going to be a really tough thing to do,” Taylor said.