by Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University
In my mind one of the stories of the 2016 election that didn’t receive enough media coverage was the vote for president by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormon for short). The Mormons are a solidly right-leaning, although geographically concentrated voting bloc in the United States. About three-quarters of the Mormon vote went for John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney did just slightly better in 2012. However, Donald Trump did not enjoy such widespread support on election day in November 2016.
In fact, data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Survey reveals that Mormon support for Donald Trump was tepid compared to prior elections. Trump received just 55% of the LDS vote in 2016, while Hillary Clinton enjoyed a quarter of all Mormon votes. So, where did the other 20% go? A big chunk went to Evan McMullin who garnered 13% of the vote, and the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson who got 6%. McMullin was a Mormon who ran as an independent who was explicitly anti-Trump in his orientation.
Thus some questions emerge: did 2016 sour the LDS on the Republican Party in a meaningful way? Have they warmed up to Donald Trump in the last four years? Or, will he continue to perform poorly with Mormons?
A good place to begin is looking at how their partisanship and political ideology have shifted in the last few years. The 2018 CCES was conducted in November of 2018, and the Nationscape began its collection in July 2019, continuing through June 2020. They can give us a sense of any real shifts in the last two years.
In terms of partisanship, there’s a fair amount of stability. In total the Nationscape data indicates that the share of LDS who identify as Republicans is about five points lower than the CCES sample, clearly not a big enough spread to make pronouncements about systemic change. The same is largely true for ideology – while 56% of LDS identify as conservative in the 2018 CCES, it’s eight percentage points lower in the 2019-20 Nationscape sample. The share who identify as liberal in the Nationscape is higher, too but only by about six points. Arguably nothing to write home about.
There are other places to look for departure though. A general job approval question of President Trump may be indicative of some shifts below the radar. I analyzed the LDS response to the job approval question in each of the twelve months of the Nationscape data.
While the Nationscape is a very large dataset (total sample is over 300,000), the LDS sample is relatively small (just 1% of the entire sample, but that’s still over 3700 respondents) and thus some variation in the monthly results can be expected. But, there is one clear impression: Mormons, on balance, place Trump on the positive side of the ledger and approve of the job he has been doing. Beginning in January of 2020, the share of LDS who approve of Trump’s performance is above 50%. The overall approval rate for Trump has hovered around 42% for a very long time according to 538, so it’s fair to say that the Mormon community puts him at around ten points higher than that baseline.
But, when the focus shifts to the policy level, it’s pretty clear that large swaths of Mormons are not in agreement with the stated views of the President. For instance, 83% of LDS support universal background checks for gun purchases, 77% support the DREAM Act, and 71% favor paid maternity leave. Trump has never been a supporter of any of these proposals. Additionally, there are several policies at the bottom that raise alarm bells. For instance, only a third of Mormons say that abortion should be completely illegal, only a quarter favor family separtion policies at the border, and just 22% support the Muslim travel ban. It’s clear the policy preferences of Mormons do not align with the White House in many cases.
But, let’s cut to the chase here: is Joe Biden going to do better than Hillary Clinton four years ago? I think the answer is clearly yes, but the data also indicates that Donald Trump will do better this time as well. The issue is the existence of third party candidates. Evan McMullin, a conservative Mormon, is not on the ballot this time around. And the Libertarians don’t seem to be gaining any traction, either. What that means is that Biden may do ten points better than Clinton. But it also means that Trump’s margin may go from 55% to 65% this time.
I find the LDS vote to be one of the most interesting stories of the coming election cycle. They were the only religious group that significantly shifted their vote choice from 2012 to 2016. But the circumstances surrounding 2020 are different. There are no real third party options this time, Utah is a state that has been especially hard hit by COVID-19, and Biden could be a more viable candidate than Clinton was just four years ago. The LDS vote may tell us a lot about how religious groups navigate difficult political circumstances and the limits of political partisanship.