If you’ve got something bad to say about someone, you probably shouldn’t shout it out in his living room.
Stepping up to the microphone at a rally in Utah this past weekend, Donald Trump must have felt invincible. He had strolled away from previous anti-establishment barbs without so much as a scratch, even after insulting John McCain’s war record, and so he decided to take a shot at another Republican leader.
This latest burn, however, may have backfired.
Trump announced, “I have many friends that live in Salt Lake City, and by the way, Mitt Romney is not one of them. Did he choke? Did this guy choke? He’s a choke artist. I can’t believe. Are you sure he’s a Mormon?” Attendees responded with a chorus of boos.
This quip was Trump’s latest attack against Romney, who earlier this month delivered an unprecedented speech encouraging Republican voters not to support the current GOP frontrunner. Romney also has an immense following in Utah, given his long record of leadership within The Church of Latter-Day Saints. 72.8 percent of Utah voters supported Romney in his 2008 presidential bid against Barack Obama.
Donald Trump Jr. rushed to his father’s defense just hours after the rally, appearing in an impromptu interview on Salt Lake City’s Fox 13. He insisted that his dad was not questioning Romney’s Mormon identity, but rather was pointing out Romney’s inconsistent set of beliefs. Trump himself wrote off the comment as another joke on Sunday’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos.
Still, all attempts at damage control from the Trump camp seem feckless. Utah Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox condemned Trump for his anti-Romney statement at a Ted Cruz rally, saying “a person running for office, in our party, thinks it’s okay that if you question his politics, he can question your religion. I have a message for the 3 million people in Utah for Mr. Donald Trump: ‘That’s not how we roll in Utah, and that’s not how we roll in the United States of America.'”
Y2 Analytics’ poll out of Utah, conducted before yesterday’s vote from Thursday through Saturday last week, reflected Cox’s sentiment. Cruz held a commanding lead at 53 percent, Trump trailed far behind at 11 percent, even slipping behind Ohio Governor John Kasich, who had 29 percent.
Trump’s gaffe may impact the general election as well. Usually a solid red state in presidential elections, Utah has not voted for a Democratic candidate since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. If Trump wins the GOP nomination, don’t be surprised by a historic flip in Utah’s presidential preferences.
Utah’s Mormon population has not responded favorably to any of the religious attacks this election cycle. Back in September, Dr. Ben Carson topped the state’s Republican polls until he shared his opinion that no Muslim should be President of the United States. His numbers in the state dropped soon after; even Mitt Romney responded on Twitter that there should be “no religious test for the presidency—every faith adds to our national character.”
Why is Utah reacting so negatively to faith-based attacks while other red states are invigorated by them? Mormons view themselves as a persecuted religious minority, and perhaps rightly so: Joseph Smith was murdered by an angry Illinois mob in 1844, and Brigham Young started a westward Mormon migration just a few years later to avoid similar instances of discriminatory violence.
There’s no doubt that many Utah Mormons identify with the current plight of Muslim Americans. Republican Governor Gary Herbert previously denounced Trump’s ban on Muslims entering the country, arguing that anti-terrorism mechanisms cannot be determined by religion. Similarly, the LDS Church responded to the proposal by restating Joseph Smith’s 1841 proclamation that within Mormon communities “all other religious sects and denominations whatever, shall have free toleration and equal privileges.”
On top of all that, according to historian Matt Bowman, “Mormons place a high premium on being nice, and Trump is not nice.”
Looking ahead to the general election, a Deseret News/KSL poll released on Sunday indicates that Trump would lose to Hillary Clinton in Utah, 38 percent to 36 percent, and also to Bernie Sanders by an impressive 48 percent to 37 percent.
Utah’s not alone: Republican primary voters are usually more conservative and politically engaged than average, and plenty of red states’ general electorates are repulsed by Trump. He’s on the rise now, but that might not last much longer.
Photo: Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Salt Lake City, Utah March 18, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart