BY COLLEEN COYLE – STAFF WRITER
Throughout the contentious election season of 2016, many Americans felt as if they had no other choice than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Citizens of Utah were no different in their dislike of the two major candidates, if anything there was a stronger dislike in Utah for both candidates than any other state. Proving this, Utah voters gave about 20 percent of their vote to a man named Evan McMullin, a third- party candidate that no one had heard of prior to his announcement of candidacy in August.
So who exactly is Evan McMullin? Why was he so successful?
Evan McMullin announced his bid for president late in the 2016 race, and sought to give voters an alternative to the nationally disliked candidates. McMullin promised to stand for his principles saying “nobody should be bullied into voting for someone they don’t like.” As an ex-CIA operative turned Goldman Sachs banker, he sought to provide an alternative conservative candidate to Donald Trump. McMullin disliked Trump, whom he said was an “authoritarian, lifelong liberal who disrespects life, liberty and equality.”
Despite his long odds of winning the presidency, McMullin stated that he was running to begin a “new conservative movement” that would reshape the Republican Party away from the path it has taken since Donald Trump was elected as the nominee for the RNC. On policy, McMullin appears a shiny Republican who is not particularly unique, but rather happened to be in the right place at the right time. His message was quite successful in Utah, where he garnered 21 percent of the vote during the presidential election. Nationwide, however, McMullin was not nearly as popular, gathering only about .03 percent of the popular vote and no electoral votes. Yet, his gathering in Utah was significant because he was the only third-party candidate that nearly defeated one of the two major candidates in a state in 2016.
So, what made McMullin’s relative success happen? Why was he able to generate a fairly large amount of support in such a short time? Several reasons contributed. First, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are not well liked in Utah, and were less popular there than in other states. This was partially due to the large numbers of Latter Day Saints (also known as Mormons) in Utah. Roughly 60 percent of Utah’s population identify as LDS, which uniquely shapes the voting pattern of the state.
The disapproval LDS folk felt about Donald Trump stems from several areas, and Dr. Knoll indicates one major reason being that at it’s founding, Mormonism was a small minority religion, which was subject to an extermination order from the state of Missouri. This cultural history shapes how many Mormons feel about sentiments of religious persecution of minorities like Muslims being repeated in recent political conversations.
Dr. Knoll, who grew up in Utah and conducts research there, explained other conflicts that the LDS might have regarding Donald Trump, stating “you couldn’t have tailored a candidate more perfectly fit to be the antithesis of every value that Mormon religious culture says they stand for.” Donald Trump fails in many ways to meet the standards of members of the LDS faith. For example, Latter-Day Saints believe that families are eternal and are essential to living righteously, and though they do not outright condemn divorce, they greatly prefer marriages to remain intact. Donald Trump, in contrast, has been divorced twice due to infidelity. Donald Trump’s other shortcomings in the eyes of Mormons is his outright vulgarity, which became evident after the tapes were released of his conversations with Billy Bush, which were caught on a hot mic.
However, Hillary Clinton did not fare much better than Donald Trump with Mormons, despite the fact that the local, LDS affiliated Deseret News endorsed her. Dr. Knoll elaborates on her lack of popularity in Utah, stating “Mormons also dislike Democrats, especially the Clintons, who have a really bad reputation [in Utah].” Similar to Trump, the Clintons do not meet the family standards set by Latter-Day Saints for obvious reasons. In Utah, Hillary Clinton only captured 27.8 percent of the vote. The unique culture of LDS voters allowed McMullin, who is a graduate from Brigham Young University (an LDS affiliated private school) and a member of the LDS faith himself, to capitalize on discontent directed towards the two main candidates.
McMullin did not represent a massive ideological divide from the Republican establishment but rather presented himself as the moral alternative that Mormons could turn to in the face of two candidates who poorly represented their values. His success was due largely to his connections to the Utah populace and due to their dislike of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Now, it is unclear what McMullin’s future will hold, however, McMullin promises his supporters “No longer can we stand by and passively hope our leaders will stand up for our rights, stand up for women, people of different races and religions, stand up for people with disabilities…we are not going away.”