Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Mormons in Nevada want a reason to like Donald Trump.
Or at least the Republican ones — who make up the overwhelming majority of the Mormon community here — do.
Some are already all-in for Trump. But for others, a year of campaign-trail attacks on women, religions, and ethnic groups from what they see as a prideful, harsh-tongued, thrice-married businessman from New York has left many members of the Mormon community here in Nevada searching — earnestly, and somewhat desperately — for a reason to support him before November.
In Nevada, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints comprise a small but reliable voting bloc that has exercised outsize influence in Republican caucuses, turns out to the polls at higher rates than other demographic groups, and often mobilizes grassroots-style on behalf of conservative causes.
But politically active members of the Latter-day Saint community say this year has been different.
“I’m concerned about the message we send if we put a candidate at the top of the ticket whose campaign has largely been fueled by insults,” said Steven Fellows, a member of the LDS community who fundraised for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. “Even if his policies are good, the character of our nation is at stake.”
From what he’s seen this year, Fellows, who hasn’t decided whom to vote for, said the LDS community by-and-large is concerned about Trump’s rhetoric and behavior and does not find them consistent with what they would want from the leader of their country.
“I want to support Trump. I really do. I want to vote with my party. I am a Republican. My intention is to vote with my party and our party’s candidate is Donald Trump,” Fellows said. “But it’s very difficult to go there.”
The varying levels of angst that Fellows and other Mormons have expressed about the election this year should have the Trump campaign concerned, political observers say. If the race in Nevada is as tight as it is expected to be, Trump needs every vote he can get.
Latter-day Saints make up about 6.3 percent of Nevada’s population, according to one recent estimate, and they turn out to the ballot box so reliably that they can end up representing an even larger share of total numbers of votes cast. Meanwhile, recent polls put Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton essentially neck-and-neck in the presidential race in the Silver State.
In such a tight race, Trump can’t really afford to have any Mormon voter stay home from the polls, cast their ballots for Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, cross party lines to vote for Clinton, or pick Nevada’s “none of these candidates” option, said UNLV political science professor David Damore.
“We’re almost to Labor Day and he still has not secured his party’s base,” Damore said.
Clinton has even gone out of her way to court Mormon voters, particularly in Utah. Earlier this month, she promised to defend religious freedom and protect faith-based values in an op-ed in the Deseret News, a Mormon Church-owned publication.
And at the same time, Trump sits uneasily among many in the LDS community. For instance, many Mormon voters have expressed concern over Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. In fact, although the LDS Church stays neutral with regard to politics, the church issued a statement obliquely condemning Trump’s suggestion.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is neutral in regard to party politics and election campaigns,” the statement said. “However, it is not neutral in relation to religious freedom.”
Even the Nevada Republican who has been the most vocal in his reservations about Trump is Mormon. Sen. Dean Heller, who has not yet said whether he will vote for Trump, said last week that Trump has made it “very, very difficult” for Mormons to “pull the lever” and vote for him.
“The Mormon community, and I’m part of that, is very respectful. They believe that you treat people with dignity,” Heller said. “And I think that his verbiage has really alienated a lot of them and made it very very difficult for them to pull the lever.”
Republican operative Cory Christensen, who is active in the LDS community, said there’s a phrase he’s heard from several people now across different wards that sums up where many Mormons are at right now: “I’m 100 percent sure I don’t want Hillary. I’m only 99 percent sure I don’t want Trump.”
“That 1 percent is it right now,” Christensen said, adding that the Trump campaign needs to “move that needle.”
But it’s unclear exactly how or to what extent the Trump campaign is moving that needle here in Nevada. A Trump Nevada spokesman said that neither he nor anyone else at the Trump campaign was able to comment on whether the campaign has any coordinated outreach to the LDS community.
However, Christensen, who worked on Mitt Romney’s Nevada campaigns in 2008 and 2012, said he hasn’t seen any specific outreach to the LDS community from the campaign or any hires that would indicate they are trying to make inroads in the community.
Because the LDS community is so tight-knit, Christensen said the current conversation among Mormon voters will continue unless someone from the Trump campaign comes in and tries to shape it. He described that conversation as currently along the lines of “I don’t love him, but I don’t know what else to do.”
Christensen’s sense is that a number of Mormons are open to Johnson, but that if they sense the race between Clinton and Trump is close, many of them will “hold their nose” and vote for Trump. The reason why? The U.S. Supreme Court.
“There’s a belief that there’s a better chance of getting conservative Supreme Court nominees out of Trump than out of Hillary,” Christensen said.
Annalise Castor, a politically active member of the LDS community, is one of those voters who places preserving religious liberties at the top of her list. Castor reluctantly said she will probably vote for Trump over Clinton, though she questions Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States and, more generally, “his values as a human being.”
“He’s not a very moral person, but neither is Hillary. It’s hard,” Castor said. “The things that matter most to us are loyalty to faith and loyalty to our family, and none of the presidential candidates really support those ideas.”
However, she said that Trump is probably her best chance in maintaining her religious liberties.
At the same time, Castor demonstrates Trump’s other problem with Mormons besides their votes: He isn’t getting that extra boost that many of them might offer through door-knocking, phone banking, and fundraising.
Castor says she spent a decade volunteering for Romney and has gone door-to-door for some of the down-ballot races this cycle. But she doesn’t see herself getting involved with Trump’s campaign.
“I think it is hard to get involved with campaigns when there is so little to get excited about,” Castor said.
But Trump still has his vocal supporters in the LDS community who are optimistic about his chances with Mormons.
Republican Assemblyman Ira Hansen, a Mormon who is voting for Trump, says he thinks that an above-average number of people in the LDS community will turn out to support Trump. He said that Trump holds a lot of appeal for the average Mormon on issues like trade and immigration.
“What I’m finding is there is a strong coalescence around him, people saying, ‘He’s not the greatest but he’s our guy and we're wanting to support him,’” Hansen said. “I’m finding less and less ambiguity.”
At the end of the day, Mormons probably won't make or break the election here in Nevada — and Clinton isn’t going to walk away with a landslide among LDS voters.
All the same, Christensen said that, if he were advising Trump on wooing Mormon votes, he would encourage him to stress the importance of Supreme Court nominations and to be smarter about where he directs his attacks.
“He needs to keep his anger focused on the people that matter and focus those on the policies of the Democrats that he thinks have failed this country,” Christensen said. “That would go a long way more than going after gold star parents and folks like that.”