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Could the Latter-day Saint vote decide the election? Why both parties are focusing in on church members

Politics

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SALT LAKE CITY (KSL.com) — In August, Vice President Mike Pence stood in front of signs that read “Latter-day Saints for Trump” and proclaimed to a crowd gathered in Mesa, Arizona, that Donald Trump should be reelected as president for all he’s done for religious liberty.

“For all he’s done for life and religious liberty, for all he’s done for people of faith — of every faith across the board — ladies and gentlemen of Arizona we need four more years of President Donald Trump in the White House.”

Four days later, the Joe Biden campaign held a virtual event that featured a parade of Latter-day Saints explaining why they would be voting for Biden.

“I see this election as a way to correct what is good and right in this world,” said Abigail Woodfield, president of BYU College Democrats.

The election season has brought a new phenomenon for many Latter-day Saint voters: presidential candidates courting their vote.

In past elections you may have heard campaigns talk about the Latino vote, the young vote, the Black vote, etc. But some believe the 2020 election might just come down to the Latter-day Saint vote.

That might sound a bit hyperbolic, but the two major parties have put an added emphasis on securing votes from Latter-day Saints. That doesn’t mean Utah has suddenly turned into a battleground state (President Trump holds a comfortable 11.3% lead in Utah in the most recent polls compiled by FiveThirtyEight), but there are many members of The Church of Jesus Chris of Latter-day Saints throughout the country. And in some cases, those votes might just decide the election.

“I think the Latter-day Saints will potentially sway an election, especially in Arizona,” said Rob Taber, head of the LDS Democrats of America. “I mean that’s part of where we have the overlap between what the battleground states are this year and a large Latter-day Saint population.”

Even while many church members have traditionally voted red, GOP Chairman Derek Brown said that members “can’t be pigeonholed into a block.”

“They’re independent thinkers and the numbers are showing that,” Brown said. “They recognize, by and large, that it’s a binary choice and we have two flawed candidates.”

That’s why Pence went down to Arizona in August to kick off the “Latter-day Saints for Trump” coalition — a coalition led by former Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch — to try and help convince the 400,000-plus members of the church in the state to continue to vote red like most Latter-day Saints have done for about a half-century. The coalition is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which maintains a neutral stance in matters of party politics.

Before 2016, a coalition to convince church members to vote for the Republican ticket would have largely been seen as a waste of time. Just take a look at Utah, which, you may have heard, has a fair number of church members in the state.

The last time a Democratic candidate won Utah was back in 1964. And most of the Republican victories have come in absolute landslides, with most winning candidates receiving more than 65% of the vote. While Trump won Utah by a healthy 18% margin in 2016, he only received 45% of the vote. Independent candidate and Latter-day Saint Evan McMullin got 21% of the vote, and those were widely seen as protest votes. Leading into the election, Trump was seen in an unfavorable light by 71% of Utah voters.

Nationally, 61% of Latter-day Saints voted for the GOP ticket in 2016, according to Pew. That was down from 78% in 2012 and 80% in 2004. That leaves the door open for the Democrats to swing a portion of the vote that has been traditionally red.

“The president is going to win re-election (in Utah), but in other states it’s going to be a lot closer,” Brown stated.

While a large number of Latter-day Saints have warmed to the president (a February poll showed 80% of Utah Republicans approved of the job Trump was doing) some still feel the same way they did in 2016, including a sizable group in Arizona.

In response to the Latter-day Saints for Trump coalition, around 200 Arizona Latter-day Saints jointly wrote an op-ed criticizing the campaign for “co-opting the church’s name.” The coalition is also not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“For us, this election is not about parties and tribalism. It is about reclaiming our core values,” the op-ed said. “President Trump is the antithesis of so much the Latter-day Saints community believes. Servant leadership, kindness, honesty, acceptance, family and respect for all are core tenets of who we are and what we stand for.”

However, the fight for Arizona is far from one-sided, Brown observed. “I’ve worked with my counterparts in the Arizona state party, and like us, they are seeing an incredibly high level of engagement and excitement by Republicans. The Democrats, unfortunately for them, they don’t really see that.”

In 2016, Trump won Arizona, a traditionally red state, by a little more than 91,000 votes, and the president is currently trailing Biden by 3.8%, according to polls compiled by FiveThirtyEight. That makes the large number of Latter-day Saints in the state quite important to each party.

The GOP is hoping many Latter-day Saints who didn’t vote for Trump last time are like Utah Sen. Mike Lee — someone who was once a critic of the president but is now a supporter.

In 2016, Lee called for Trump to drop out of the race after a video was published by the Washington Post of the president describing his interactions with women in vulgar terms. By 2019, Lee was co-chairman of the president’s reelection campaign in Utah. Trump even placed Lee on the shortlist of those he would consider for a U.S. Supreme Court appointment (though the president ultimately nominated Amy Coney Barrett to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat).

So what caused the switch for Lee? He said getting to know Trump personally and seeing him as an effective leader helped change his mind.

“I didn’t support him last time around,” Lee told KSL.com. “I also didn’t know him then and I have gotten to know him since then. And I see good in him. Has he made mistakes? Sure, and he’ll be the first to admit it.”

Lee continued, saying he finds it completely reasonable for a candidate’s personal life to come into consideration for voters. But, Lee says it’s easy for people to villainize individuals — especially politicians — who they’ve never met.

“It’s easy to not love someone you do not know and with whom you have no relationship,” Lee said. “I’ve seen people tear into politicians that they don’t know, that they’ve never met and that they never will meet. And that always makes me sad because it oversimplifies things.”

Lee, who didn’t vote for Trump in the last election, said he had a hard time getting over some of the issues that had arisen in 2016.

“And while I still don’t agree with everything he does and he certainly doesn’t speak the way I speak and has lived his life in a very different way than I have, I do know him and I’ve come to know there is good in him,” Lee continued. “And I’ve come to see that he’s done a number of good things. Those things matter too.”

As for the Democrats, they are hopeful that a couple hundred thousand more Latter-day Saints in Arizona feel the same as the couple hundred who penned the op-ed. Some church members who have opposed the president have mentioned they’re uncomfortable with his use of foul language, his checkered past, his tendency to bully, and his views on immigration. The church itself in 2018 called for “unity” and “compassion” after children were separated from their families on the Mexico-U.S. border. Though it never mentioned Trump, the church called “national leaders to take swift action to correct this situation and seek for rational, compassionate solutions.”

Biden has already received an endorsement from a number of prominent Latter-day Saint politicians who don’t affiliate with the Democratic party, including McMullin and former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake.

Flake went as far as to call a second Trump term “a real danger,” and some church members in Arizona have helped start an organization titled “Arizona Republicans Who Believe In Treating Others With Respect” in opposition to the president.

Earlier this month, Latter-day Saints for Biden Harris — a group that is not officially affiliated with the Biden campaign or the church — released a list of hundreds of Latter-day Saints throughout the country who are supporting the Democratic ticket. The list includes Taylor Petrey, Neylan McBain, Jim Bennett, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Patrick Mason and Steve Evans. Last week, the organization joined forces with the Biden campaign to hold a virtual panel, headlined by McMullin.

But while Trump’s personality and demeanor may cause some Latter-day Saints to pause, Brown said voters will ultimately decide on who should be president based on policy.

“People have issues with a lot of the things (the presidential nominees) have done in their personal lives, and I think it forces people to simply look at the policy views,” Brown said. “Most people are struggling with the decision, and I think that’s normal. Ultimately it will come down to policy, and I believe that’s why the president has the support that he does.”

When it comes to policy, Taber said the Democratic platform is a “big tent” meaning Latter-day Saints don’t have to necessarily agree with everything in it — and he specifically brought up the issue of abortion.

“We’re not saying that you have to identify as pro-choice and Joe Biden himself is personally pro-life — he takes his Catholic faith very seriously,” Taber said. “So we’re a big tent on the approach to these issues.”

It’s not just in Arizona where the Latter-day Saint vote could become critical, either. Taber mentioned states like Nevada, Florida, North Carolina, Michigan and Nebraska — battleground states that have large enough concentrations of church members that it could swing a state one way or the other.

“We have over 100,000 Latter-day Saints in Florida,” Taber said. “If 10% of Latter-day Saints decide ‘Hey, I know I’ve always voted Republican but I’m supporting Joe Biden and Kamala Harris,’ that’s 10,000 votes in Florida. Same thing in North Carolina, same thing in Nebraska. … You never know.”

Which is why the Latter-day Saint vote will continue to be courted right up until the election — by both parties.

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