By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University
This post was originally published on Religion Unplugged.
I’ve long been fascinated by the dynamic between Mormons and white evangelicals. On the surface, the two groups look remarkably similar. Both communities are religiously devout, remain focused on evangelizing but also maintain strong social ties within their faith community, and tend to lean to the right in American politics.
Under that veneer there’s been a lot of turmoil. It’s been my impression that Mormons have always felt a bit ostracized from the general American public. To combat this, the LDS church put together a media campaign called “I’m a Mormon” with the goal of normalizing their faith to the average American. I think, in some ways, that Mormons wanted to be seen as evangelicals.
But, many evangelicals want to ensure that doesn’t happen. Some of the leading voices in conservative American evangelicalism have labeled Mormonism a “cult.” Even the Billy Graham website once described Mormonism in cultish terms before the nomination of Mitt Romney in 2012. External similarities papers over the fact they are some strange bedfellows, to be sure. But, do they really see politics in the same way? The data tells a pretty complicated story.
Let’s start broadly, with a look at partisanship and political ideology. In both cases, white evangelicals tend to be more apt to identify with the right side of the spectrum. For instance, 73.3% of white evangelicals identify as Republicans. It’s a bit lower for Mormons at 65.7%.
Speaking in terms of liberal-moderate-conservative, both groups lean heavily to the right side of the continuum. 68.7% of white evangelicals identify as conservative or very conservative. It’s eleven points lower for Mormons – 56.5%. The cause of the divergence is that white evangelicals are ten points more likely to be “very conservative” and ten points less likely to be “moderate.”
What about vote choice? I don’t have any reliable samples that go back before the 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama, but the last three election cycles do offer an interesting window in how Mormon’s view electoral politics.
In 2008, Mormons were nearly as likely to support John McCain as white evangelicals. It’s noteworthy that there was a slightly greater likelihood that Mormons cast a ballot for a third party candidate in 2008. In 2012, Mormons were obviously very strong for Mitt Romney. His vote share jumped 11 points compared to McCain’s in the prior contest.
The election that pitted Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton put Mormons in a weird spot, though. While white evangelicals still supported the Republican at basically the same level (77.5%), it was Mormons who defected in large numbers. According to the data, just over half of Mormons pulled the lever for Trump, but that only led to a modest increase for Clinton. Instead, a quarter of all Mormon votes went to other candidates, with many choosing Evan McMullin.
So, while Mormons do look like white evangelicals in terms of partisanship and ideology, they don’t vote in lockstep. And one of those reasons may be policy. I looked at just three issue areas: gun control, abortion, and immigration. Through this lens, real differences come into focus.
There’s really no difference in views of gun control. However, some daylight emerges in some abortion scenarios. Mormons are about half as likely to support making abortion completely illegal compared to white evangelicals. Mormons are also more supportive of abortion in the cases of rape, incest, or life of the mother.
Immigration is the real divide, however. On all five of the immigration questions, Mormons are not as conservative on immigration as white evangelicals. They are nearly twenty points less likely to support an elimination of the visa lottery and family based migration. They are 16 points less likely to support additional funding for the border wall of security on the Mexican border.
I must wonder if that continued support of harsh immigration policies and the presidency of Donald Trump among white evangelicals and the Republican party might drive a wedge into the Mormon vote. I don’t think any Democrat could ever win the electoral college votes of Utah, but it seems much more possible now than it did in the spring of 2012.
Featured Image Credit: NPR