Donald Trump has a “Mormon problem.” He is barely ahead of Hillary Clinton in Utah, and actually behind in Arizona, a strong Republican state with a large Mormon population.
Various theories have been floated as to why Mormon voters are reluctant to back Trump. Jack Jenkins of the liberal Atlantic wrote in March that given their own history of suffering persecution, Mormons “don’t like people who bash immigrants, or those who discriminate on the basis of religion.”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) has a similar theory about Mormons and Trump. He told Steven Malzburg of Newsmax this week:
We can go through the fact that he has made some statements that some have identified correctly as religiously intolerance. We can get into the fact that he is so unpopular because my state consists of members who were a religious minority church — a people who were ordered exterminated by the governor of Missouri in 1839 and statements like that make them nervous.
There is (only) a kernel of truth to that, because various Mormon institutions have quietly been reaching out to Muslims around the world.
Several years ago, while I was working in Cape Town, South Africa, I studied Arabic with a teacher whose wife wore a full veil and was a motivational speaker for other Muslim women. She visited the U.S. as the guest of a Mormon institution that was trying to establish an international consensus on family values.
Trump’s proposed temporary Muslim ban would probably make such trips difficult. But that hardly accounts for the reticence of Mormons as a whole.
Lee cannot actually believe that Trump’s statements about Mexicans and Muslims are cause for the Church of Latter-Day Saints to be afraid. If he does believe that, perhaps Lee should become a Democrat, because he has bought the founding myth of the post-1960s Democratic Party, which is that minorities need to huddle together for protection — though Democrats have not been shy about attacking Mormons.
There is a different, and more obvious, reason that Mormons are skeptical of Trump — and it does have something to do with minority-group politics.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is the first Mormon to win the presidential nomination of a major political party. He has also been a leader in the LDS church. He achieved financial and political success without giving up his identity. He is an icon, a symbol of “making it.”
Every minority group has such icons, and rarely questions them.
Romney’s sway with fellow Mormons cannot be underestimated. In the fall of 2008, I appeared on a political panel at Harvard Law School to discuss the upcoming presidential election. I was one of two Republicans; the other was a Mormon classmate who had volunteered for Romney during the Republican primary. (Romney had a large following at Harvard, his alma mater, particularly among the large Mormon contingent.)
My classmate said that he could not bring himself to endorse Republican nominee John McCain. This was a life-or-death election, as far as many of us were concerned — and yet for him, it was Romney or nothing.
In March, Romney delivered a blistering, ugly attack on Trump in a speech at the University of Utah, calling him a “phony” and a “fraud.” Romney had to know Trump was likely to win the GOP nomination at that point. He was poisoning Trump for the general election — whether out of spite, conviction, or both. And the audience — a few hecklers aside — loved him for it.
In the wings, a political insider told me Romney wasn’t finished yet: “This is just Act One,” he said. Others whispered that Romney might hope to enter the race himself, though he declined last year; Romney hinted as much this week.
Regardless, many Mormons who reject Trump are following Romney’s lead. Until he changes his mind, they won’t change theirs.
Romney may cost Trump the election. How odd that a man Bill Clinton eviscerated in 2012 might return the Clintons to power.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. His new book, See No Evil: 19 Hard Truths the Left Can’t Handle, will be published by Regnery on July 25 and is available for pre-order through Amazon. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.