This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
For the first time in a long, long time, a presidential race in Utah has become unpredictable.
With four weeks to go before Election Day, big-name political figures such as Gov. Gary Herbert, Sen. Mike Lee and Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Mia Love are not sure for whom they are going to vote. They just know they no longer can stomach Republican nominee Donald Trump after a video emerged showing him bragging about groping women. They've also ruled out casting a ballot for Democrat Hillary Clinton, seeing it as equally untenable to cross parties, particularly for her.
The Trump tape has softened his support in a state where he already wasn't all that liked. In reaction, third-party candidates Gary Johnson, the Libertarian, and Evan McMullin, an independent conservative, plan to spend more time here. Both believe they have a real shot at winning Utah and becoming the first minor-party candidate to capture electoral votes since 1968.
"This is just uncharted territory," said Chris Karpowitz, a political scientist with Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. "We don't have a good sense of where voters will go."
The latest Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute poll found Trump with a lead in Utah, but hardly an insurmountable one. He had 34 percent as of mid-September, followed by Clinton at 25, Johnson at 13 and McMullin at 12. Nearly one in 10 (8 percent) of likely voters plan to write in a name.
Karpowitz believes Clinton's support will stay somewhere between 25 percent and 33 percent, while GOP defectors are more likely to explore a third-party candidate or a write-in or simply not vote for president.
"We could see something where the candidate who wins Utah gets less than a third of the vote," he said. "I could see Hillary Clinton narrowly winning, but I could also see her coming in third or fourth place, and I could say the same thing about Donald Trump."
McMullin and Johnson have headquartered their campaigns in Utah and said they would amp up their efforts in the state in the wake of Trump's video and the slate of Utah Republican leaders who now find him untenable.
"There is a reason why Utah is important to us," said McMullin, who was born in Provo."I believe the people of Utah have a deeper understanding of what is good leadership."
McMullin most recently worked for House Republicans as a foreign-policy expert. He has previously been with Goldman Sachs and the CIA. He jumped into the race late and is on the ballot in 11 states.
"He's not a serious national candidate," Karpowitz said.
McMullin's only hope of victory would require Trump and Clinton to split most states, while he picks up Utah and maybe one or two more. If no candidate secured the necessary 270 electoral votes, the U.S. House would determine who would serve as president. That's a long shot, particularly with Trump's most recent slide in the polls.
But McMullin also said a vote for him is a vote to launch "a new conservative movement" that could rise in a post-Trump political world. He said he, more than Johnson, is prepared to be a leader in that undertaking.
"I'm the only conservative in this race, and I share most Utahns' values," he said. "The best way forward is to recommit ourselves to the principles that made our country profitable and powerful."
He criticized Johnson for his missteps on foreign policy, including televised interviews in which Johnson didn't know that Aleppo is a major city under siege in Syria's civil war and couldn't name a world leader he admired. McMullin also argued that his Libertarian rival wasn't a strong protector of gun rights and doesn't support "true religious liberty," a reference to comments Johnson made saying laws to back religious freedom in the wake of the legalization of gay marriage could lead to discrimination and violence.
"There is something not quite right about Gary Johnson," McMullin said. "And I think a lot of voters understand that."
Johnson was far more muted in his criticism of McMullin. While McMullin is on the ballot in 11 states, Johnson is the only third-party candidate on the ballot across the nation.
"Evan McMullin cannot be elected president of the United States. He can't be elected," he said. "Certainly, as human beings, we can do whatever we want, and I'm not trying to second-guess him or his reasons for running. But you can do the math."
Johnson is focusing his attention on Utah, Colorado and, of course, New Mexico, the state he led as a Republican governor. His running mate is Bill Weld, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts.
They launched a new billboard campaign in Utah and 18 other states this weekend. Each billboard carries a simple two-word message and some of them say: "Not Trump."
While not in reaction to Trump's lewd video, the timing couldn't have been better for the Libertarian. He argues that Western voters, including Utahns, have a libertarian streak that he and Weld are trying to tap.
"We were small government, first and foremost," Johnson said. "We were socially inclusive coming down on the side of people, and their ability to make choices in their own lives."
He said he wants to embrace free trade, encourage immigration and pull back the aggressive U.S. foreign policy. Johnson noted that nationwide he's pulled more votes from Clinton than Trump so far and he sees that as a positive.
"People are really a combination of the two parties," he said.
Love, Utah's first-term congresswoman, never endorsed Trump but in a late August interview said she was considering a vote for either Trump or Johnson. She's now ruled out the Republican nominee, but not prepared to back the Libertarian, saying Monday: "I have been looking into the other candidates. There is still some time left."
She is among more than a dozen high-profile Utahns ranging from 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who denounced Trump back in March, to state Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, a former Trump backer who are either not sure or have not yet said who will get their vote for the White House.
McMullin picked up the endorsement of former Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell on Monday and seemed close to securing the support of Aimee Winder Newton, a Salt Lake County councilwoman and a delegate to the Republican National Convention this year. She pulled her backing of Trump over the weekend and began researching third-party candidates.
"We need a strong national defense, and we need to support our veterans. Evan believes that as well," she said. Newton believes McMullin would shift more power to states, revamp the tax code and help the poor. "I feel like Evan McMullin is a conservative who has common sense."
But she knows his chance of winning is astronomically low. It would take an Electoral College split. And if Utah was a real swing state, it might change her mind.
"If Utah ends up giving our six electoral votes to Hillary Clinton, I might have to throw up a little bit," Newton said. If it really came down to it and Trump had a chance to win, she would probably vote for him.
"But I'm not in that situation," she said. "I'm going to vote my conscience and who best reflects my views."
A vote for a third-party candidate or no vote at all helps Clinton, said Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, and the Draper Republican just can't go for that.
"You get two choices in this race and only two," said Hughes, who has been Trump's biggest backer in the state, though he added he was "mad as hell" about the comments the GOP nominee made in the video.
He worries a Clinton presidency would result in a more liberal Supreme Court and lower courts, which would bring more onerous rulings for states.
"I support Trump," he said, "but it is an incredibly difficult position to be in."
Niederhauser signed a joint letter supporting Trump in late August at a time when the Republican hopeful was gaining strength. But after the video, Niederhauser is not sure how he's going to vote.
He's taking a look at the third-party candidates, while at the same time bracing himself for other potentially embarrassing revelations about Trump and Clinton.
"There is a potential for other stuff that is going to come to light in the next two to three weeks," he said. "At least for me, I'm reserving my commitment to any vote until I see what else is out there."
The Republican presidential nominee has locked up Utah in the last 12 elections, and none of the contests has been close. But Trump's toxicity, particularly with Mormon voters, has created a scenario in which four candidates now believe they can win the state.