Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Election news from across Utah's statewide and national races in 2020.

McMullin Voters In Utah Ponder Who To Pick For President This Year

Renee Bright
Two Evan McMullin supporters attend an election night party in 2016. McMullin walked away with 21% of the vote in Utah.

Republican presidential candidates usually enjoy overwhelming support at the ballot box from Utah voters, but in 2016 Donald Trump only received 45.1% of the vote in the Beehive state — about 20 percentage points less than is typical.

Many Republican and conservative-leaning voters instead turned to independent candidate Evan McMullin, a Utah Republican and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But with no major third-party candidate in the state this year’s election, those Utahns are faced with another difficult choice of who to vote for.

“I have always been a Republican,” said 64-year-old Debra Coe of Lehi. “I was part of the Christian right. And I stayed a Republican — pretty devoted Republican — up until 2016.”

Coe is a member of the Church and said she couldn’t support Donald Trump because of what she sees as moral shortcomings, like making fun of a reporter with a disability at a rally and the Access Hollywood tape, when Trump bragged about groping women.

Debra Coe and her husband, Don, both voted for independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin in 2016. Coe was a lifelong Republican up until that election.
Sonja Hutson
Debra Coe and her husband, Don, both voted for independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin in 2016. Coe was a lifelong Republican up until that election.

“If you're going to be president of the United States, there needs to be some moral values,” Coe said. “And I'm just not seeing it with him.”

Until McMullin announced his candidacy in August of 2016, Coe didn’t know who to vote for. She didn’t like Hillary Clinton, but knew she couldn’t vote for Trump. McMullin was the perfect middle ground.

But Coe said she didn’t look into any third party candidates this year, because none of them have as much momentum in the state as McMullin did. So, she’s decided she’ll vote for Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

“I'm not a huge fan of Biden,” she said. “But I think I would much rather have him than Trump at this point because of those core things, the way he’s dividing our nation, that I think is really problematic.”

There’s very little chance enough Republican voters will defect and turn Utah blue this November. According to polling website FiveThirtyEight, Trump has a 96% chance of winning the state.

It’s not clear yet from polling where the 21% of Utah voters who cast their ballots for McMullin will go this year. Trump is poised though to once again receive a smaller share of the vote than previous Republican nominees. The website projects he’ll get 57%. Republican presidential candidates typically get support in the high 60% or 70% range.

Many Latter-day Saint Republicans like Coe are the reason Trump has less support than other GOP candidates, according to Reed Galen, a Utah-based co-founder of the Lincoln Project, a conservative, anti-Trump political action committee.

“The Church does hold itself to a very high moral standard, both ethically and in the member's personal lives,” Galen said. “And I think that he is the antithesis of what they would consider, at least from my perspective, to be acceptable behavior.”

But, Galen said, some might not be able to choose between Trump and Biden, so they’ll leave that section of the ballot blank.

“They're not going to bring themselves to probably vote for a Democrat for president, but they're also not going to, in their own mind, endorse Donald Trump's behavior or failure, whatever it might be, by casting their ballot for him,” he said.

Lifelong republican Terra Cooper, who voted for McMullin, actually is excited to vote for Biden. She’s 40 years old and said she thinks she’s been a liberal her whole life, but was in denial because she grew up in conservative West Point, Utah. But Trump becoming head of the Republican party made her feel like she finally could leave and embrace her liberal ideology.

“It swung me from I felt like I was a moderate to I would say I went Democrat socialist,” Terra Cooper said. “I'm definitely further left — and my husband knows this — than I ever thought that I was ... because of social justice issues, because of the environmental issues.”

She and her husband Josh Cooper, 43, now live in Syracuse, Utah. Josh is an anti-Trump conservative who voted for McMullin.

“If I had to vote between Trump and Joe Biden, I'd probably go Biden,” he said.

But, Josh doesn’t agree with a lot of what Biden stands for.

Terra Cooper encouraged Josh Cooper to take a political ideology test to find out which candidate aligns with his views the most. He got Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgenson. So, he’s voting third party again, even though Josh knew McMullin wouldn’t win in 2016 and he knows it’s unlikely Jorgenson will win this year.

Sonja Hutson
Terra and Josh Cooper sit outside their home in Syracuse, Utah. They both voted for independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin in 2016. This year, Terra is voting for Democratic nominee Joe Biden and Josh is voting for Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgenson.

“Whether they're going to win or not, or they're a big underdog, I don't care,” Josh said. “I'm going to be able to stand in judgment day and say, ‘Hey, I tried to make the best decision I could.’”

Terra said she voted third party in the last presidential election because she saw polling that made her think McMullin had a shot at taking Utah’s six electoral college votes away from Trump. But that’s not the case this year.

“I really want Trump to lose,” Terra said. “I will vote for whoever I think will get him to lose. And I don't think there's going to be [a third party candidate] in Utah that will take away votes from Trump.”

Both Trump and Biden’s campaign are putting in work to win over Latter-day Saints, and have created committees focused on the group. But those efforts, like campaign stops, are concentrated in Arizona and Nevada, where the gap between the two candidates is considerably smaller than in Utah.

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.