Donald Trump's Mormon Problem — And Other Things to Watch For In the Utah and Arizona Republican Primaries

Trump's hardline position on immigration will likely hurt him among the majority of voters in Utah, but it seems to helping him in Arizona.
March 22, 2016, 5:10pm
Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

From evangelical Christians to libertarian college students, Donald Trump has managed to win over just about every type of voter so far in the Republican primary election. But one group that doesn't appear to be jumping on the Trump train are Mormons. And that means that Trump is very likely to suffer a big loss tonight in Utah tonight.

Utah is voting alongside Arizona Tuesday night in the Republican presidential primary and will split its 40 delegates between the Republican candidates. But given the state's election rules, a big loss for Trump there could mean that Senator Ted Cruz, the expected winner, would take all of them.

Mormons make up about 60 percent of the population in Utah, a statistic that doesn't bode well for Trump. As New York Times pollster Nate Cohn pointed out, the heavier the Mormon population has been in previous primaries, the worse Trump has performed. This was demonstrated starkly in Idaho, where Trump lost in landslide to Senator Ted Cruz in the heavily Mormon areas of the state.

One of the biggest issues for Trump among Mormon voters is his position on immigration. As Buzzfeed's McKay Coppins, who is Mormon, recently pointed out, the church has a compassionate stance on immigration, which is at odds with Trump's hardline view on the issue. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has spent years lobbying heavily for immigration reform that prioritizes the unification of families over deportation of undocumented workers.

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"Our principle, I declared to the president [of the United States], is that we love our neighbor, which means we love all people, in all places and at all times," LDS Church President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a leader in the Mormon Church, told LDS-owned newspaper Deseret News in 2014. "One of the core values we stand for is families. The separation of families [in US immigration policy] isn't helping."

Trump, on the other hand, wants to build a wall on the Mexican-US border, deport millions of undocumented workers and temporarily ban Muslim immigration to the country altogether. After Trump first proposed halting Muslim immigration to the US last December, the church responded with a rare statement.

"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is neutral in regard to party politics and election campaigns," they said. "However, it is not neutral in relation to religious freedom."

Meanwhile, Senator Ted Cruz, the only Republican candidate resembling competition for Trump, is hoping to capitalize on the frontrunner's unpopularity with Mormon voters and sweep Utah on Tuesday night. If Cruz can win more than 50 percent of the vote, he will pick up all 40 of the state's delegates. This won't clinch the nomination for Cruz, who still trails Trump by just over 250 delegates, but it would bring him closer and further support his claim that he is the only viable challenger to Trump.

Cruz's chances to win Utah are looking good. The most recent Utah poll shows Cruz beating Trump by a whopping 42 points. And he also has the support of several key Utah politicians, including Senator Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee. Romney, who is Mormon and lives in Utah, said he plans to caucus for Cruz on Tuesday.

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But where Trump's position on immigration will likely hurt him among the majority of voters in Utah, it seems to be helping him in Arizona, which will also vote on Tuesday. The reality television star is polling ahead of Cruz by double-digits, according to the two most recent polls of Republican voters in Arizona.

Trump's lead is boosted by the endorsements of self-styled "America's Toughest Sheriff" Joe Arpaio and former Republican Governor Jan Brewer. Both figures gained national attention, and controversy, for their exceptionally hardline stances on immigration, which is the top issue in the state.

But Cruz hasn't given up on Arizona either. A win there, coupled with Utah, would bring him closer to stopping Trump from getting the 1,237 delegates required to secure the GOP nomination. Arizona awards its 58 delegates on a winner-take-all basis and would be a huge coup for Cruz.

The Texas senator's campaign began airing television ads in the state on March 12 focusing on his toughness toward border security. And Cruz could be helped by the fact that Arizona has a closed primary, meaning that only Republicans can cast ballots. Those contests have typically favored Cruz, while Trump has dominated in primaries that are open to everyone, where he pulls in votes from independents and Democrats as well.

But while Trump is still a clear favorite in Arizona, his campaign seems to have come to terms with losing Utah. HIs campaign's spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, told the Associated Press: "I wouldn't say this a place where we are expected to perform exceptionally well."

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Trump's first visit to the state came just last Friday in Salt Lake City, where he held one of his smallest rallies yet. Trump told the crowd that he "loves" Mormons, who are "amazing people" before questioning the faith of Utah's native son, Mitt Romney. "Are you sure he's a Mormon?" Trump said. "Are we sure?"

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928