Matthew R. Miles, Brigham Young University-Idaho
Mitt Romney made history the other day by being the first US Senator in history to vote against a president of his own party in a Senate impeachment trial. Given the religious language he used to explain why he chose to vote guilty on one impeachment article, many are curious about how his religion influenced this decision. In my view, Senator Romney had both religious and political reasons to find Trump guilty. Using statewide polling data from Utah made publicly available from UtahPolicy.com and Y2 Analytics, and the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, I will explain how the dynamics of political support in Utah made it easier for Romney to take this stand than his fellow co-religionist Senator Mike Lee.
A majority of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) are loyal Republicans. Despite this, Mormon support for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election was tepid. Figure 1 shows that when asked which candidate they intended to support in the 2016 election, many Mormons intended to vote for someone other than Donald Trump.
Figure 1: Intended 2016 Vote Choice among Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
In this national survey, almost half of the strong Republicans Mormons indicated that they did not intend to vote for Donald Trump. Among Republican Mormons, almost two-thirds planned to vote for someone other than the Republican nominee. In contrast, Figure 2 shows that Trump’s support among born again Christians was reversed. More than two-thirds of Republican-leaners and strong Republicans intended to vote for Trump, and his support among born-again Republicans was equally strong.
Figure 2: Intended 2016 Vote Choice among Self-Identified Born-Again Christians
This suggests that support for President Trump among Mormons is different than his support among other Republican-leaning religious groups. Although most active Mormons have tended to vote for and support Republican candidates for office, something different is going on in Trump’s case.
This is important for understanding why Senator Romney had leverage other Republican Senators lacked. This post will not explain why Mormons dislike Trump, plenty of others are looking at that. Instead, I examine how the constituency who supports Mitt Romney in Utah is different from those who support President Trump.
Republican Support for Impeachment in Utah
From November 20-December 7 of 2019, the Utah Political Trends Panel asked respondents some questions about the impeachment proceedings that were taking place in the House of Representatives. One of the questions in the survey asked, “Based on what you have seen, read, or heard; would you say Congress should impeach Trump and remove him from office or not impeach Trump and he should remain in office?” Respondents were also given the option to say that they were “not sure”. For ease of interpretation, Figure 3 displays support for impeaching President Trump among Republicans in Utah and excludes the “not sure” category.
Figure 3: Support for Impeaching Trump among Utah Republicans
Mormons use the terms “active” or “less active” to differentiate people who belong to the church from people who belong to the church and regularly participate in church programs. A less active Mormon typically attends church less frequently and does not volunteer as regularly. An “active” Mormon attends church regularly, serves in lay church leadership, and volunteers. Active Mormons would score high in each of the three B’s (belief, behavior, and belonging) of Mormonism.
Figure 3 shows virtually no support for impeaching Trump among strong Republican Utahans. Furthermore, religious activity appears to have no influence on support for impeachment among strong Republicans. Among Republicans, about 60% support acquittal, and religious activity only seems to change whether or not respondents are in favor of impeachment or are “not sure” about impeachment. Less active Mormon Republicans are more supportive of impeachment. Support for acquittal among active LDS Republican leaners is nearly identical to the support found among active LDS Republicans—only 61% of them support acquittal. In contrast, 94% of less active LDS Republican leaners support acquittal.
In some ways these results are consistent with theoretical expectations from political science. Strong partisans tend to support their party leader and follow their lead. In addition, people who identify as partisan leaners behave more like strong partisans than they do partisans. What is different and important for understanding Senator Romney’s decision is that the Republicans who deviate from the norm are active members of the LDS church. If Senator Romney’s base of support in Utah is found, not among the strong Republicans, but among active LDS Republicans or active LDS Republican-leaners, a vote to impeach President Trump is consistent with delegate representation. That is, a vote to impeach would be exactly what his constituents expect from him. In a state in which 54% of voters identify as Republican, it may be possible for Senator Romney to win primary elections without catering to a strong Republican base.
Republican Approval in Utah
From June 27-July 17 of 2019, Utah Policy surveyed 2,601 registered voters in Utah and asked them to state their approval of a number of political figures. Overall, strong Republicans in Utah love President Trump. Figure 4 compares the approval ratings of President Trump with Senators Lee and Romney among Mormon Republicans in Utah.
Figure 4: Approval Ratings among Mormon Republicans in Utah
The broad pattern of findings in Figure 4 shows that Senator Mike Lee and President Trump share a constituency that Senator Romney does not. That is, most strong Republican Mormons disapproved of Romney last summer, while expressing approval of President Trump and Senator Lee. In contrast, Republicans are much stronger supporters of Romney than they are of President Trump or Senator Lee. In Utah, the stronger the affiliation with the Republican Party, the more likely an individual is to approve of President Trump and Senator Lee and to disapprove of Senator Romney. Thinking of Republican leaners as stronger partisans than simple Republicans reinforces this broad pattern.
Figure 5: Approval Ratings among Active Mormon Republicans in Utah
In Utah, religious activity alters the broader pattern of support discussed previously. Overall, Mitt Romney has stronger support among active Mormon Republicans. Strong Republicans who are active Mormons express higher approval of Senator Romney. Half of them approve of Romney. Active Mormon Republicans are the most likely to approve of Senator Romney and express the lowest approval and highest disapproval of President Trump. Republican-leaners who are active Mormons have almost the same approval and disapproval patterns for Romney that they express with President Trump. The approval ratings displayed in Figure 5 are similar to the support for impeachment numbers in Figure 3.
It appears that Senator Lee’s supporters in Utah are similar to Trump supporters in Utah. Broadly, strong Republicans in Utah give high scores to both Senator Lee and to President Trump. The same is true for Republican-leaners. They are nearly as likely to approve of Senator Lee as they are of President Trump and are less likely to disapprove of Senator Lee.
Examining the role of LDS church activity reveals that it plays an important role in both support for impeaching President Trump and approval of Senator Romney. Active Mormons in Utah with weaker attachments to the Republican Party are the most likely to support impeachment and the most approving of Senator Romney.
Religion or Representation?
Was Senator Romney courageous or was he simply acting as a delegate for his constituents? Both can be true. Religion seems to be a motivating force causing some Utahans with weaker Republican ties to express support for Senator Romney. This may be why Senator Romney used religious language to justify his vote to impeach President Trump. Numerous commentators extol Senator Romney’s courageous act of partisan defiance. Let us not forget that Mitt Romney was also doing exactly what some of his constituents expected of him.
Matt Miles is a Professor of Political Science at Brigham Young University, Idaho and author of Religious Identity in US Politics. Further information about his work can be found on his website and on Twitter.
 The sample size is large enough (846) to explore some trends, but there aren’t enough individuals in some categories for multivariate analyses.