Evan McMullin, former chief policy director for the House Republican Conference and CIA operative, filed as an independent presidential candidate Monday — a bid that poses a distinct problem for GOP nominee Donald Trump.
It’s unlikely that McMullin will meaningfully shift the outcome of the general election. His announcement, however, reflects the efforts of many Republicans who refuse to vote for Trump, and his candidacy might conceivably turn the tide in one state: Utah, where White House run immediately was met with enthusiastic support.
“People in Utah are especially disenchanted with their options this year,” McMullin told MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough on Tuesday. “They don’t know where to go. We have had an enormous outpouring of support since we announced; we’ve had people volunteering by the thousands to support us.”
McMullin, a Brigham Young University graduate and devout Mormon, could pull a substantial number of votes away from Trump ― especially since the Mormon vote constitutes over 60 percent of the electorate in the reliably red state.
High-profile Mormon leaders Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee, and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) have eviscerated Trump on numerous occasions, highlighting his incompatibility with Christian values.
Many Republican strategists have acknowledged that Trump can’t win the presidency without holding down the states that Romney won in 2012, including Utah. The last time Utah swung blue was in 1964, when Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson ran against Republican Barry Goldwater. The 2016 presidential race, however, has been anomalous in many ways ― and Utah’s potential flip might prove as yet another example.
Compared to Republican nominees of past years, Trump has been polling poorly in the Beehive State. Romney locked down the Utah vote by a landslide in 2012 (he had 73 percent of the vote, compared to Barack Obama’s 25 percent), as did John McCain in 2008 (62 percent to Obama’s 34 percent).
But CNN has recently changed Utah to “leaning Republican” from “strongly Republican” on its general election map.
The HuffPost Pollster model shows that Trump is polling, on average, at 36 percent in Utah, just ahead of Clinton’s 28 percent. And Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is surging in the state, according to Dan Jones & Associates’ latest survey of Utah voters. He’s polling at 16 percent this month, up from 10 percent in July.
Johnson’s sharp increase in support in Utah ― the state where he polls the highest ― signals that voters there are resistant to the major party candidates, and that they could be inclined to throw their support behind a third-party challenger.
Although McMullin has missed the filing deadline in many states, the independent challenger still has the opportunity to collect enough signatures to appear on the presidential ballot in a substantial number. Utah, for instance, only requires 1,000 signatures (a relatively low threshold) by Aug. 15 to appear on the ballot.
The candidacies of McMullin and Johnson, coupled with Trump’s crippling unpopularity among Mormon voters, might just split the Republican vote enough that Hillary Clinton could end up winning traditionally deep-red Utah.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims ― 1.6 billion members of an entire religion ― from entering the U.S.