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'Tone Deaf' Trump Campaign Might Have To Worry About Utah

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Republicans usually don't have to worry much about keeping Utah in their column for presidential elections. But Donald Trump said this week, quote, "we're having a tremendous problem in Utah." According to polls, Mormon voters might be added to the list of people that Donald Trump may have alienated this year. We're joined now by Chris Karpowitz of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, and he joins us from Provo. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHRIS KARPOWITZ: It's a pleasure.

SIMON: So what's happened in Utah?

KARPOWITZ: Well, I do think Don Trump is having a tremendous problem here. And that's partly stylistic, partly substantive, but he certainly doesn't seem to have the base of support that a typical Republican would have in this state.

SIMON: Are there some historic parts of Mormon belief and practice that differ from the way Donald Trump sees the world?

KARPOWITZ: Yes. I think that when Donald Trump talks about things like a religious test for immigration or when he talks about refugees in ways that are not very empathetic at all - those sorts of things raise concerns among many members of the LDS church. Part of that is the church's own history as a religious minority and its history of persecution. And so when Mormons in Utah or elsewhere hear someone talking about excluding people from the country on the basis of religion, that does not sit well with many or at least raises some concerns that would say perhaps this is a time when they ought to think twice about their presidential vote choice.

SIMON: What about that 40 percent of the state that we're told is not Mormon, but sometimes traditionally Republican. Do they have some differences with the Trump campaign?

KARPOWITZ: Well, I think so. Among Republicans here in Utah, there are a variety of different flavors of Republicanism. And I think there are non-Mormon Republicans in the state who expressed concern about his readiness for office and some of the other statements that he made, in the same way that many other Republicans around the country have expressed concern.

SIMON: At the same time, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, seems to have made a real specific and concrete direct appeal to Utah voters, hasn't she?

KARPOWITZ: I think that's right. She published an op-ed in The Deseret News referencing LDS Church history and talking in ways that would have resonated with many Mormons or at least the language would resonate. Whether or not people who have come to some judgments, rightly or wrongly, about Hillary Clinton will ultimately be swayed by that is another question. But there's no question that Hillary Clinton or her campaign are reaching out to Mormons in a way that is different from what we've seen from Democratic candidates in the past.

SIMON: Any sign of increased support or at least interest in third-party candidates?

KARPOWITZ: Absolutely. So I think Jill Stein is not likely to do terribly well, but she will appeal to diehard Bernie Sanders supporters who can't find a way to vote for Hillary. Gary Johnson appeals very directly to the libertarian streak that's common in the West and certainly very present here in Utah, although, with respect to social issues, he's less conservative than Utah voters typically want to see. And his initial forays into talking about religious liberty were awkward, to say the least.

And then we have, this week, a new candidate, Evan McMullin, who is a BYU graduate and has ties to the state. He is not well-known at all within the state. And so I don't think the mere fact that he is LDS or went to Brigham Young University, you know, will be decisive in the end. But he could steal enough votes to make things interesting in the state.

SIMON: Chris Karpowitz is the co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young. Thanks very much for being with us.

KARPOWITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.