The 2020 Presidential Election’s Most Interesting State: Utah

One of the Most Republican States Swung 30 Points Towards Democrats Last Election. Now What?

I’ve spent the last few months working on a personal project in which I’ve been collecting data on how Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs, or “metros” for short) voted in the 2012 and 2016 Presidential elections. MSAs are a geographic area made up of one or more counties which fall under the greater influence of one major city — essentially, they’re a way to measure local regions across the US, a geographic measure more narrow than states but broader than cities and counties. I was specifically looking at how each metro swung from one direction to the other between the two elections, identifying the margin by which each major MSA in the US voted in favor of the Democratic candidate in 2016 and then subtracting it by the same margin for 2012 so that I could tell which areas of the country Trump outperformed the previous Republican candidate in. Unfortunately, I recently realized that the data source I was using — the only one that could get me the numbers I needed without a huge amount of work — was flawed, and thus that I couldn’t reliably use the data I had gotten from my project for anything too official or authoritative. Losing all that work was very sad, but even with numbers that were a bit off, I was still able to identify some surprising trends. In particular, one thing stood out: Utah.

In my flawed dataset, I looked at the 250 largest metros for which data was available, covering over 81% of the US population. Of those 250, the three metros with the largest swings from one party to the other by far were Utah’s largest: Provo-Orem, Ogden-Clearfield, and Salt Lake City, in that order. The only other metro in Utah that made it on the list, St. George, came in 17th for the largest swing. This is true even though Provo-Orem and St. George were the two most Republican metros in the entire country in 2012. Even more surprising, though 62% of all metros swung in the direction of the Republican candidate in 2016, all four Utah metros swung in Hillary Clinton’s favor. In Salt Lake City, the swing was enough to turn it into one of only two metros in the country to go from voting for Mitt Romney to voting for Hillary Clinton.

Dots to the left of the diagonal line are metros which voted more Democratic in 2016 than in 2012, while dots to the right represent metros which voted more Republican in 2016 than in 2012. Remember: the data here is flawed and shouldn’t be relied upon for any authoritative analyses; I’m just including it to illustrate what I initially found.

To make sure that my data wasn’t the problem, I decided to calculate the same numbers by hand using datasets from the Utah state government. Though the numbers weren’t quite the same, the conclusions largely were: Utah’s four largest metro areas all swung Democratic in 2016 by large margins, and Salt Lake City did flip. What’s more, 24 of Utah’s 29 counties swung away from the Republican party between 2012 and 2016. I constructed a state-level dataset with accurate data to look into this more, and found that Utah blew every other state out of the water: Utah, one of the most Republican states in the county in presidential elections, swung 30 points in the direction of the Democratic Party between 2012 and 2016, nearly doubling the next largest swing for a state in any direction. Utah is Republican enough that it still voted for Trump, but it voted for him by a margin of 18 points rather than the 48 points for which it voted for Romney. No other state in the country comes close in its changes from 2012 to 2016.

Swing towards the Democratic party in presidential vote margin between 2012 and 2016 (this and all other numbers from this point forward will be using my accurate state-level dataset).

What caused this massive shift? What is it about Utah that makes its election results stand out so massively from every other state in the country over the last two Presidential elections? The answer, it turns out, is Mormonism.

God’s State

Mormonism is a unique offshoot of Christianity founded by Joseph Smith Jr. in 1820. What Smith claimed to be a series of divine revelations ultimately led to the publishing of the Book of Mormon, the Mormons’ divine text which integrates Biblical history into an American context. Smith and his following first established settlements which received highly hostile treatment in Missouri and Illinois, so they decided to set up a territory in the Western United States that was then known as the Utah Territory. Though they proposed a Constitution for a semi-theocratic state known as “Deseret” that encompassed much of the American West, they essentially took control of the territory with President Millard Fillmore’s permission through the appointment of Brigham Young, Smith’s successor as Church leader, as the territory’s first Governor. The US government disliked the Mormons for their polygamy and theocratic practices, but a small war and some federal legislation eventually made Mormon domination of Utah a de facto reality rather than a de jure one.

Indeed, resistance against Mormon political power in Utah was waged inside the state too. In the 25 years or so before Utah became a state in 1896, the territory had a two-party system: the Liberal Party opposing Mormon control, and the People’s Party supporting it. Needless to say, the Liberal Party lost. Though another state organization, the American Party, would also oppose the Mormons for several years, raw demographics combined with statehood kept Utah as a unique experiment in American democracy: what was essentially a religious colony became a state within the system of American federalism.

Today, Mormons make up 68% of Utah and 88% of its state legislature. The religion has not just shaped the state’s politics, but the state itself: Salt Lake City’s urban design is built according to plans laid out by Joseph Smith, and is very literally centered around Mormonism’s holiest site, the Salt Lake Temple.

Utah politics are deeply Republican, with the state never once coming with 15 points of a Democratic victory in a presidential election since Lyndon Johnson won it in 1964. The last time its state legislature was under unified Democratic control was 1976. Mormons themselves are the most Republican and most self-identified conservative religious group in the country, beating even Evangelicals. The Book of Mormon makes the claim that the US Constitution was divinely inspired. Mormons are more quote-unquote “small government,” opposed to welfare, and opposed to environmental regulation than any other religious group, and come only behind Jehovah’s Witnesses in their opposition to legal abortion and same-sex marriage.

Some Fancy Math

Mormons are the most conservative religious group in America, consistently more so than Evangelicals. And yet, while 76% of Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, only 45% of Mormons did.

This discrepancy shocked me. But when I dug into the data, I found the same thing. I took my state-level dataset and I ran a multivariate regression — essentially a statistical model for looking at how different factors affect one dependent variable when controlling for all the other factors. I used the regression to see how 13 different measures each affected a state’s swing from 2012 to 2016, independent of all the other measures’ effects:

  1. Population change from 2010–2018
  2. Percentage of the state that’s non-Hispanic white
  3. Median household income
  4. Poverty rate
  5. Unemployment rate
  6. Percentage of the state with a bachelor’s degree
  7. Drop in state turnout between the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections
  8. A measure of how much harder voting got in each state from 2012 to 2016 (my thanks to the appendix of Li, Pomante, and Schraufnagel 2018).
  9. Percentage of the state that’s Mormon
  10. Percentage of the state that lives in a city
  11. Median age
  12. An index of how much a state elects women to public office (thanks to Institute of Women’s Policy Research)
  13. Unionization rate

All of these factors have been speculated to have played some role in Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016. Though regression models are best used when you have more observations than just the 50 states of the US, this is still a revelatory exercise. Of 13 different factors that had a state-level impact on why the 2016 presidential election turned out different from 2012, the percentage of Mormons in a state is the statistically strongest.

The “P>|t|” column tells you each factor’s “p-value.” The lower the p-value is, the more likely that that variable still had an impact on our measure in question (2012–2016 swing) when holding other variables constant. A number below 0.05 is generally considered good statistical evidence; a state’s rate of Mormonism has a 0.000. (For this regression, Prob > F = 0.0000, meaning there’s definitely some sort of relationship captured here).

There’s some level of evidence here to suggest that poverty, unemployment, college attainment, a drop in turnout, attitudes about electing women to office, and unionization all played a role on a state level in 2016. But there is stronger evidence for Mormonism playing a role than all of them. Thus, Utah’s swing towards Democrats in 2016 was primarily just a function of its status as Mormonism’s home base. This also likely explains why Idaho — a Republican stronghold with the second largest percentage of Mormons in America — also swung slightly towards Democrats between the two elections even as the rest of America was moving the other way.

Why did support for the Republican candidate among followers of the most conservative religion in America drop so sharply? There’s three answers: Romney, Trump, and third parties.

The Great Switch

The Republican Party’s presidential nominee went from Mitt Romney, a milquetoast center-right governor, to Donald Trump, an unhinged far-right billionaire, in one election cycle. With a switch like that, it’s no surprise that many states swung significantly between the two elections. But the effects of this switch were greatest in Utah, because the Republican Party went straight from the most Mormon candidate ever to run for President to the least Mormon candidate ever to run for President.

The first answer for Utah’s sharp turn is Mitt Romney. Romney — now Utah’s Senator — is a Mormon whose mother is from Utah, who went to college in Utah, and who was married in Utah. For this reason, Utah voted for him at massive levels. Romney won 73% of Utah’s vote in 2012, winning every single county; the state hadn’t voted for a candidate at that level since Reagan’s 1984 landslide. This distorts our analysis somewhat, since the comparison between 2012 and 2016 in this case isn’t so much a comparison between the normal GOP and Donald Trump, but between a candidate who had a clear advantage and Donald Trump. But Romney wasn’t the only reason the swing occurred.

The second answer is Donald Trump himself. In the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, Trump’s worst state that reported a popular vote total was Utah: he came in third place with just 14% of the vote. Though 2020’s Republican primaries are largely a farce, of the 18 states to vote so far, Utah is tied for second-last in the percentage of the vote going to Trump. There is substantial evidence that Mormons simply don’t like Trump specifically very much. Despite being the most conservative religious group in America, the Republican President’s approval rating with them is just 55%.

Part of this can be attributed to Trump’s personality. As a loud and offensive public figure who has quite openly built his career on sin, he doesn’t offer much to the austere religious sentimentality of Mormonism. But there’s a political reason as well: though not exactly liberals on the subject, Mormons are principally pro-immigration.

The Mormon Church’s official statement on immigration reads:

What to do with the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants now residing in various states within the United States is the biggest challenge in the immigration debate. The bedrock moral issue for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is how we treat each other as children of God.

The history of mass expulsion or mistreatment of individuals or families is cause for concern especially where race, culture, or religion are involved. This should give pause to any policy that contemplates targeting any one group, particularly if that group comes mostly from one heritage…

The Church supports an approach where undocumented immigrants are allowed to square themselves with the law and continue to work without this necessarily leading to citizenship.

The Mormon Church seems to remember that the only reason they reside in Utah in the first place is because Joseph Smith was forcefully pushed out of multiple states, something they might characterize a “mass expulsion or mistreatment of individuals or families… where… religion [is] involved.” As such, the Church has given its support to the Utah Compact, a state policy which deemphasizes deportation of immigrants. As for the Church’s followers, McKay Collins noted that polling has found Mormons are just slightly more supportive of immigration than America at large, and are twice as supportive of increased immigration as Evangelicals.

So even though Mormons are deeply conservative, a hedonistic xenophobe is the single least attractive figure the Republican party could have offered them. His primary campaign issue was the one single policy area where Mormons on aggregate are on the Republican Party’s moderate wing.

This relative distaste for the Republican candidate in 2016 leads into the third answer for Utah’s swing: third parties. In 2016, 27% of Utah voted for a third party candidate, putting Hillary Clinton closer to third place than she was to first. According to my dataset, no other state in the country has reached that level of abstention from the two-party system in the last three election cycles. When you don’t like the Democratic Party and you don’t like Trump, you look elsewhere.

3.5% of Utah voted for the Libertarian Party candidate, Gary Johnson. Though Mormon politics are hardly Libertarian, Gary Johnson was more moderate than much of the party itself, and likely appealed to many Mormons more than the main two candidates. But the real standout candidate in Utah was the independent conservative Evan McMullin, a Mormon from the state who ran because of distaste for Trump. McMullin received 21.5% of the state’s vote, and actually came in second place ahead of Clinton in 15 of 29 counties.

The 2016 presidential elections in Utah had more total votes than 2012. Between the two elections though, the number of votes for the Republican candidate fell by about 225,000, while the number of votes for the Democratic candidate only rose by about 59,000. That’s because the number of votes for third party candidates rose by 282,000.

…Now What?

With an understanding of the fact that Utah’s Mormon-influenced politics make it more hostile to Donald Trump than most Republican strongholds, the question becomes how this will play out in 2020. We shouldn’t expect a drop of the same size again, as much of the drop can be explained by inflated numbers in favor of Romney in 2012. There’s also reason to doubt Trump will do quite as poorly as last time, seeing as there currently aren’t any major third party tickets on the same scale as 2016 (not to mention McMullin, a candidate practically guaranteed to do well there).

The factors that led Mormons in Utah to dislike Trump — his unethical egomaniac personality and his cruel and draconian immigration policies — have not diminished, and if anything have intensified. At the same time, there is no longer a conservative Mormon from Utah running on an independent ticket, meaning that the off-ramp many Mormon voters used to avoid Trump last time is no longer present. For this reason, it’s likely that Trump will continue to do worse in Utah than in most other conservative states in 2020, but may actually improve his numbers since 2016. But because of the many voters there who can’t stomach casting a vote for his reelection, the Libertarian Party candidate will probably have one of their best performances in Utah.

Utah still voted for Trump by 18 points in 2016, so it’s highly unlikely that the Democratic nominee will win over enough McMullin voters and others to win it in 2020. But Trump’s impact will likely help move the state towards the Democratic Party in other offices. In the 2018 “blue wave,” Salt Lake City elected conservative Democrat Ben McAdams to congress in a seat that generally leans Republican by 13 points. The state’s Senators, Mitt Romney and Mike Lee, have emerged as two of the more Trump-critical Senate Republicans.

If the Republican Party makes a sharp turn away from Trumpism in the near future, Utah will likely return to being a deeply Republican state. Such a “return to normalcy” strikes me as highly unlikely, though: after the last ten years of US politics, there is no more normal to return to. On the other hand, if the party doubles-down on Trump’s brand of politics, it will be enough to keep Utah down the path towards the Democratic Party, regardless of how far down that path it ultimately goes.

Writer on politics, public policy, and current events. All opinions here are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of employers past or present.

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