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Over half of Mormons have negative views of Trump. They could be an important Arizona swing vote

Evangelical Christian voters overwhelmingly supported former president Donald Trump in 2016, and two-thirds of white evangelicals still view him positively today, according to recent numbers released from the Pew Research Center. 

But, the same cannot be said of another religious group with a large presence in Arizona: Latter-day Saints. Surveys show more than half of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have negative views of Trump. From Mitt Romney on the national stage to Rusty Bowers here in Arizona, LDS leaders in politics have a track record of standing up to the former president — and often facing the political consequences. 

There are nearly 450,000 members of the LDS Church in Arizona, which is about 6% of Arizona's population. With margins as tight as they have been here in recent elections, they could be an important swing vote. 

The Show spoke more about the LDS vote with Samuel Benson, national political correspondent for The Deseret News, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Full conversation

SAMUEL BENSON: I think the best data points for Latter-day Saints in understanding their support for any political candidate is the most recent election. Latter-day Saints are a tough group to pull because we're such a small community in the United States. I mean less than 2% of Americans are Latter-day Saints. So in any poll you have of the American electorate, Latter-day Saints usually are in a representative sample. So taking that into consideration though in 2016, Trump did worse in Utah than any other state he won. He only won about 45% of the state and that happened to be enough to win because there was an independent Latter-day Saint running named Evan McMullin, who won about 20% of the vote. Then again in 2020 Trump won Utah again, but fared fairly poorly and, and, and Joe Biden did better than any Democrat has in Utah since 1964.

So over and over again in Utah, which is a majority Latter-day Saint state, you have huge portions of even Republicans who are choosing to vote against Trump or to withhold from voting for Trump. And people have speculated about why this is. A lot of it has to do with Trump's character, viewing him as a, as a moral figure. They want to see a moral character as the leader of the free world, a leader of the United States. And they don't see that in Trump. On policy, a lot of Latter-day Saints as you mentioned are Republicans. So they do tend to walk in lockstep with Trump, especially on social issues. But immigration is one of them where they tend to deviate. So they, a lot of different factors here. But when it comes to polling, the best bet we have is what the most recent election says.

LAUREN GILGER: Yeah. Yeah. Talk a little bit more about the differentiation between Trump's views and L DS folks' views on immigration in particular because there's a sizable population of Latter-day Saints here in Arizona, right? And, and we're obviously a border state. Immigration is a big deal here. What's the disconnect there?

BENSON: The first thing I'll say is, is to remember that Latter-Day Saints aren't a monolith, just like any religious group. There are a whole variety of political and social views within the group. But if we're speaking kind of, of American Latter-day Saints, especially in the Western United States, most of them are fairly conservative socially on issues like abortion and gay marriage. But immigration, as you mentioned is one of those things in which Latter-day Saints tend to differentiate themselves. And you know this in Arizona better than anyone. You go back to 2010 and 2011 with SB 1070, which was proposed by then Sen. Russell Pearce, who was a Latter-day Saint in Arizona, but opened this whole battle in Arizona between Pierce and Jerry Lewis, who is also a Latter-day Saint, ran against some of the recall on a pro-immigrant message.

And then come 2016, we saw the same thing in Utah when Trump was proposing his Muslim bans, the state's governor, Gary Herbert, came out against it as did many prominent Latter-day Saints throughout the community. And that's something that we saw throughout the Trump administration up until 2020, whether it be over DACA and "Dreamers" or whether it be over proposed travel bans to majority Muslim countries and things like that. Latter-day Saints in many ways view themselves as kind of the the descendants of immigrants, even religious refugees since Latter-day Saints were persecuted throughout the United States and had to migrate to Utah, which was then outside the borders of the United States and Arizona and other places. So that's something that's close to the Latter-day Saint psyche in many ways.

GILGER: That's very interesting. So let's talk a little bit about the church's official position on this because it changed, it sounds like, about a year ago in the summer of 2023 the, the leadership of the LDS Church came out with this statement saying that voters don't need to blindly vote for one party. What was the reaction to that?

BENSON: It's interesting. Two years prior to that, President Dallin H. Oaks, who's a member of the church's first presidency, which is the highest governing body, spoke in the church's general conference and gave a very similar message. He told members of the church not to vote just because of party affiliation. But to think about the issues that matter most to you and then vote along those lines, that might mean voting for people of different parties in different races or different years. So this is something that church leaders have been saying explicitly for several years that has kind of been the church policy for much longer than that.

The church is very careful never to take partisan positions to never endorse candidates or even their newspaper. The Deseret News will never endorse candidates because it is viewed by many to be the voice of the church, which it isn't, I should, I should specify. But it's interesting that that letter that got sent out by the first presidency because they explicitly said to focus on issues, not party affiliation when it comes to voting. For the longest time, Latter-day Saints have been viewed as a largely Republican group, fairly conservative in a lot of ways. And this message tells them not explicitly not to vote Republican. It doesn't tell them how to vote but to not allow your party affiliation to supersede kind of your moral or personal or even your political views.

That being said, this is something that has been kind of the church policy, whether it be explicitly stated or not, for decades. Members are encouraged to be involved civically and to allow their religious beliefs to kind of influence their political life. They're just never told what side of the political spectrum that should be.

GILGER: So there are also generational differences in this. It sounds like like young people are leaving the LDS church in, in pretty large numbers. You're seeing sort of retention rates drop as we are seeing young people leave many churches and different religions across the spectrum. How do you think that might factor in?

BENSON: That's a great question. The interesting data here to me is that Latter-day Saints, and I'm speaking specifically about millennials and Generation Z, are much more likely than their older counterparts to identify as Democrats or center left leaning independents. I'm getting that data from a lot of different places. But the best is probably Ryan Burge is a data scientist who studies this. And that shift to me is interesting, but it goes back to exactly what you said. We're seeing young people leave organized religion in high numbers. And I'm that goes beyond just the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, just about every faith.

So the question to me is perhaps in 20 or 30 years, we see a much more politically diverse Latter-day Saint population within the United States. Perhaps a lot more people that identify as Democrats or as you know, left-leaning independence. The question is, are these young people going to stay religiously active? And I'm not just talking about Latter-day Saints here, but kind of all religious young people, do they see the need for institutionalized religion? Do they stay in these faith communities? If that does happen, if they stick around, you'll see a much more politically diverse Latter-day Saint community if the current trends hold.

GILGER: OK. So final question for you then, Samuel, as we head into the 2024 election, and we're looking at a swing state like Arizona, which has a sizable population of Latter-day Saints here. I mean, do you think that that vote, which would have been a traditionally Republican vote maybe in the past, which maybe is shifting now, do you think that'll make a difference? Like, do you expect, you know, more LDS people around the country and here in Arizona as well to sort of shift away from a GOP controlled by Donald Trump?

BENSON: It's very possible. You look at Nevada and Arizona in 2020. It was a lot of suburban women that were credited with swinging the elections there for Biden and a lot of them were Latter-day Saint women who perhaps in the past registered as Republicans or identified as Republicans and perhaps still do but feel very averse to Trump. So the question to me is, one, how many people are going to turn out in November? And two, what percentage of those Latter-day Saints who perhaps have voted as Republicans in the past won't do so?

You can, you can look at voting trends both in Nevada and Arizona. I bring up Nevada simply because it's also a swing state this year and also has a significant Latter-day Saints population. And both of them to me are key when you're thinking about the Latter-day Saint vote and how it affects Trump and Biden. If Latter-day Saint voters continue the trends they showed in 2016 and 2020, where they showed real aversion to former President Trump, I think that could be a huge boon to Biden, could perhaps swing the vote to Biden in Arizona and Nevada just based on the Latter-day Saint numbers in the states.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.