Most Mormons planned NOT to vote for Trump. What the heck happened?

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By Jana Riess with reporting by Benjamin Knoll

The results of last week’s presidential elections left a lot of people gobsmacked. And in this season of upsets came a non-surprise that was actually rather surprising: most Mormons voted for Trump.

If you’re familiar with recent Mormon political leanings, you may be wondering what could possibly be unusual about Mormons voting for Trump. Here is Mormon voting data based on recent history compared to 2016 Pew analysis of exit polls:

2004 GW Bush: 80% J. Kerry: 19%
2008 No data No data
2012 M. Romney: 78% B. Obama: 21%
2016 D. Trump: 61% H. Clinton: 25%

So Trump won the Mormon vote . . . but in a lukewarm fashion. His victory was not the strong four-out-of-ratio we saw with Bush and Romney; Mormon GOP voting was down to three in five. That’s a majority, certainly, but not an overwhelming one.

And in Mormon-dominated Utah, Trump didn’t achieve a majority at all, earning just under 45% of the vote. As the Salt Lake Tribune put it, that result was “barely half of Romney’s performance with the voting bloc and 30 points lower than John McCain received in 2008.”

Clinton finished the Utah race with 28% of the popular vote, with independent candidate Evan McMullin taking another 21%.

But here’s the surprising part. This exit poll data is very different from the data we collected in September and October for The Next Mormons survey. Political beliefs and behavior were just two elements of that larger research project, and we are still analyzing all the findings, but one thing seems clear: up until the end of the campaign, most active, self-identified Mormons said they were not planning to vote for Trump.

how-mormons-planned-to-vote

As you can see here, in the weeks leading up to the election, only 36% of our national LDS sample said they would choose Trump as their preferred candidate (43% of men and 29% of women).

Most tellingly, Trump wasn’t holding on to loyal GOP voters: only 58% of respondents who identified themselves as Republicans said they planned to vote for their party’s nominee.

In the end, though, Trump wound up getting 61% of the national LDS vote –- a 25-point jump over Mormons’ stated intentions in the weeks leading up to the election.

So, what happened between this survey and Election Day?

What we saw in the Mormon community is a dramatic example of a group that “came home” to their political party and threw support behind its nominee in the final days of the race. Mormons weren’t the only ones to do this, as the Washington Post reported on October 30 and CNBC stated on November 3 as the polls were tightening. And it’s likely that many of the “other/undecided” voters in our sample wound up holding their noses and voting for Trump in the end.

So despite an unprecedented Deseret News condemnation of Trump’s candidacy, despite public denunciations from Mormon GOP leaders like Mitt Romney, and despite the alternative of a conservative LDS independent candidate in the race, most Mormon voters still came home to the GOP.

This time. It’s interesting, looking at the data, where some potential fault lines may lie for Mormons and the GOP in the future. In addition to Trump’s tepid support among women, we also see that temple recommend holders were three times as likely to back fellow Saint Evan McMullin as non-recommend holders, by 18% to 6%. Apparently some of Mormonism’s most conservative and religious members were actively seeking an alternative to Trump.

McMullin was especially significant for the voters in Utah, with 25% saying they planned to support him. Outside of Utah, though, that figure plummeted to only 8%, leading to McMullin getting 13% of the planned national Mormon vote overall.

Generationally, the trends throughout the nation held true for Mormons’ voting plans as well: Clinton received her highest support among the 18 to 35 crowd (35%) and her lowest among those born before 1964 (20%), while with Trump those trends were reversed.

One curious trend was that 5% of LDS Millennials said they planned to vote for Green candidate Jill Stein, which was five times the support she received among the Boomer/Silent respondents. (Insert the usual caution here that when we’re dealing with smaller subgroups in a survey, the margin of error is higher.)

Note that these figures are for the active, self-identified Mormon population. The former Mormon sample planned to go for Clinton over Trump, largely ignored conservative LDS candidate Evan McMullin, and had a slightly higher minority of overall voters planning to support Jill Stein.

On a personal note, I’m keenly disappointed that as many Mormons were taken in by Trump’s fear mongering as apparently were. Obviously, Trump only barely achieved a majority among Mormon voters overall – and did not even crack the 50% mark among Mormons in Utah – but three out of five LDS voters nationally still chose to embrace his legacy of racism, sexism, and xenophobia. And that’s saying nothing of Trump’s volatile temperament and utter inexperience in governing so much as a junior high student council.

Time will tell how much damage he will do as our nation’s president, and whether the better angels of our nature will in the end prevail. I can only go on record as saying that I believe most of my Mormon people have made the wrong choice.