The odds of him actually losing Utah in the general election after many months of party honchos preaching unity are small, I think, but that’s not really the takeaway here. The takeaway is that Trump, who’s supposed to “expand the map” by attracting independents and Reagan Democrats in blue states, will begin the race needing to shore up support in red ones that are supposed to be gimmes for the Republican nominee. Winning New Hampshire doesn’t matter if you’re losing Utah. And if you’re spending time and money trying to hold Utah, that’s time and money you’re not spending trying to win New Hampshire.
Note that Bernie Sanders fares even better in this poll head to head with Trump — in Utah! — than Hillary does. That’s like Ted Cruz leading a presumptive Democratic nominee comfortably in Massachusetts. What would you conclude about the national viability of that Democrat from a poll like that?
While Clinton was only slightly ahead of Trump — 38 percent to 36 percent — Sanders, a self-declared Democratic socialist, holds a substantial lead — 48 percent to 37 percent over the billionaire businessman and reality TV star among likely Utah voters.
“Wow. Wow. That’s surprising,” said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. “Any matchup in which Democrats are competitive in the state of Utah is shocking.”
Also surprising is the number of Utahns who said they wouldn’t vote if Trump were on the ballot. Sixteen percent said they’d skip the election if Trump and Clinton were their ballot choices, while 9 percent said they wouldn’t vote if it was a Trump-Sanders matchup.
If you’re looking for reasons to doubt the results, note that they sampled registered voters, not likely voters. On the other hand, Cruz’s margin over Hillary here, 60/32, is in line with the sort of blowout margins you’re used to seeing from Republicans in Utah. And it’s not a given that party bigwigs will speak with one voice in favor of unity this fall, to help rally stubborn anti-Trumpers like the 16 percent here who say they won’t vote. Many will, but Mitt Romney — who holds outsized influence in Utah as the first Mormon nominee for president — has already said he’d probably vote third-party given a choice between Trump and Clinton. It’s almost impossible to imagine Mike Lee, Utah’s junior senator and one of the Senate’s staunchest conservatives, climbing aboard the Trump train. Other big names, Marco Rubio likely among them, will end up as #NeverTrumpers. Republican voters who don’t want to support Trump will have plenty of encouragement from the top, which could calcify the early resistance to him on the right. And remember, it’s almost taken for granted that Trump will try to move left after he wins the nomination in order to appeal to swing voters in the general election. Someone like Cruz, whose ideological credentials are impeccable, could get away with a few centrist panders without fear of losing red-state strongholds. Someone like Trump, whose credentials are, er, basically nonexistent, might not. If he made a play for millennial voters by suggesting that marijuana should be decriminalized, say, what would that do to a tight race in Utah?
The best way to challenge this poll if you’re a Trump fan, I think, is to dismiss Utah as sui generis. True, it’s ominous that Trump would trail Hillary in any poll of a famously red state, even seven months out, but there’s no reason to extrapolate broad lessons about other red states from this. For one thing, just look at the latest primary poll there: Cruz 53, Kasich 29, Trump 11. No other state, including Cruz’s famously conservative home state of Texas, has seen Trump lashed quite that badly. What you’re seeing in the Utah numbers isn’t a conservative backlash to Trump but a Mormon backlash to a candidate who’s out of sync with them in all sorts of important ways. Read McKay Coppins for a laundry list of mismatches, both demographic and policy-wise. Mormons tend to be well educated while Trump does best with less educated voters; Mormons lean towards supporting comprehensive immigration reform whereas Trump favors mass deportation; Mormons are all about “family values” whereas Trump, er, is not. And then there’s this:
Many Mormon voters are similarly wary of another Trump campaign hallmark: Muslim-bashing.
Last year, when the billionaire proposed banning all Muslims from entering the United States in the wake of the San Bernardino terrorist attack, Trump became the only candidate in either party this election cycle to elicit a response from LDS church leadership.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is neutral in regard to party politics and election campaigns. However, it is not neutral in relation to religious freedom,” the statement read, before proceeding to quote the faith’s 19th-century founder, Joseph Smith, saying he would “die in defending the rights of … any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves.” (In case the message wasn’t clear enough, the church-owned Deseret News went on to publish a story highlighting the growing alliance and solidarity between Mormon and Muslim leaders.)
Cruz himself is wise to Trump’s weakness with Mormons and made a point at a rally yesterday of noting how Trump recently questioned Romney’s faith. Trump’s going to get crushed in Utah on Tuesday night, possibly finishing a distant third, but he’s rampaged through other reliably red states on the map that were expected to support Cruz. Why wouldn’t the general election see the same pattern, with Trump winning more narrowly than Romney in a handful of red states with large Mormon populations yet winning comfortably in other parts of the GOP’s red-state base? If you want to worry about Trump in the general, worry less about Utah than whether anything like the 16 percent who said they’d stay home if he’s the nominee is replicable in other states. He’s going to have his work cut out for him in Florida, for instance, given the huge number of Latino voters there. If 16 percent of Florida Republicans decide to pass on the election while Hillary’s running up the score with Latinos, say goodnight.
And if that’s not enough reason to worry, read this. There’s only so much damage that President Hillary could do, even with a Democratic Senate, so long as the House remains solidly Republican. But … what if the House doesn’t remain solidly Republican?