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Independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin is nipping at the heels of Republican Donald Trump in a new poll of Utah voters, with Democrat Hillary Clinton lagging behind but potentially within striking distance.
The poll conducted Oct. 20-27 for The Salt Lake Tribune and the Hinckley Institute of Politics shows Trump still holding a slight lead in the state at 32 percent, with McMullin within the margin of error (3.42 percent) at 30 percent. Clinton has actually lost some ground from earlier polls and sits at 24 percent.
The tight race means that, for the first time since Lyndon Johnson won the state in his 1964 landslide, Utah may not go to the Republican candidate, and all three campaigns have been scrambling to gain the upper hand with just days until the race draws to a close.
Tana Goertz, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign and a former Utahn, said the Republican nominee's team "is working hard to grow Mr. Trump's lead in Utah."
Goertz was in the state last week with vice presidential candidate Mike Pence to solidify support. When she talks to voters, she emphasizes that Trump has never smoked or drunk alcohol and that, as president, he would create jobs and keep America safe.
"I lived in Utah for years, and I know what voters in this state look for. They want a candidate who will fight for conservative values, religious liberties, and [he] is the only one who will fight for all the veterans, the brave men and women who have served our great country," said Goertz, who was once a contestant on Trump's television show, "The Apprentice."
Pence's visit was followed Thursday by a get-out-the-vote bus tour featuring Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Donna Brazile. Both campaigns plan other visits by surrogate and get-out-the-vote efforts in the waning days of the race.
The Clinton campaign did not respond to the poll results Friday.
"This poll shows that Utah voters are consistently dissatisfied with nominees of the major parties," said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute at the University of Utah. "People are very interested in this election, they're watching it very closely, but the numbers just aren't changing for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, except for one area and that's their unfavorables."
Indeed, 86 percent of voters rated their interest in the election between eight and 10 on a scale from one to 10.
But the Dan Jones & Associates poll of 823 likely voters also found that Trump and Clinton are intensely disliked in Utah. Trump is viewed unfavorably by 70 percent of voters, but still eclipsed by Clinton, who is frowned upon by 75 percent. A remarkable 79 percent of those surveyed are unsatisfied with their choices this presidential election.
The survey was completed before Friday's announcement that the FBI was reviewing more emails related to its investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. Perry said that may change the numbers somewhat for Clinton, depending on how that issue unfolds.
The voter dissatisfaction appears to have translated into a tremendous surge for McMullin, who was sitting at 12 percent in The Tribune-Hinckley poll barely a month ago, but has rocketed into contention, siphoning off support from Trump, but also Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, who tumbled from 13 percent to 4 percent in the most recent survey.
McMullin, a Provo native and Mormon who only got into the race in August, has seen particularly impressive gains among LDS voters in Utah.
His support among "somewhat active" Mormons quadrupled since the last Tribune-Hinckley poll, conducted Sept. 12-19, and now stands at 34 percent, ahead of Trump. McMullin's support more than doubled among "very active" members to 44 percent, an 8-point edge over the GOP nominee.
"We're excited to be in the statistical margin of error and we believe we have the momentum, which is where we want to be," said Peter Watkins, Mountain West director for the McMullin campaign.
Without the campaign cash and the organization of a national party, McMullin is relying on volunteers and supporters to spread his message, Watkins said, but he believes it's working. McMullin will also have several events in Utah and surrounding states over the coming days.
If McMullin wins Utah, the only historical parallel for the state would be the election of 1912, when Democrat Woodrow Wilson and former President Teddy Roosevelt, running in his newly formed Progressive Party, were the two main contenders, but Utah was one of just two states that went to Republican William Howard Taft.
Trump's support in Utah has been fairly steady, hovering around 30 percent in recent polls. The latest Tribune survey found that 68 percent of voters said their choice would not be swayed by the recent release of a video in which Trump brags about sexually aggressive behavior toward women. That group includes Trump backers as well as those who already had decided against him. Close to a third of voters said the video made it more likely they would vote for someone other than Trump: 18 percent migrating to McMullin, 8 percent to Clinton, 2 percent to Johnson and 2 percent who said they now would not cast a vote for president.
Those numbers were essentially the same for women and men.
Meanwhile, voters overwhelmingly approved of Utah's elected officials withdrawing their endorsements of Trump in the wake of the video's release. Sixty-three percent supported the move, while 31 percent said it was the wrong thing to do.
Gov. Gary Herbert, Sen. Mike Lee, and Reps. Mia Love, Jason Chaffetz and Chris Stewart all condemned Trump's comments. Lee and Love said Trump should drop out of the race. Chaffetz and Stewart said this week that they'll vote for Trump after all, but will not endorse his candidacy.
The survey found that voters' motivation for backing their respective candidates is evenly split, with 41 percent voting to support their candidate and the same percentage casting ballots to stop the other candidates from winning.
Voters say if their candidate doesn't win the election, the results could be bleak. Twenty-six percent said the nation could be irreparably damaged if their candidate loses, while 35 percent said it would be much worse off.
But Utahns reject Trump's assertions in recent weeks that the election is "rigged" against him. Eighty-five percent say they believe that the votes will be counted accurately in Utah.
The poll also found:
• A gender gap exists among Utah voters, with the top three candidates in a statistical dead heat among women. Men, though, favor Trump 36 percent to 30 percent for McMullin and just 22 percent for Clinton;
• Utah's electorate also has a significant generation gap. Voters under age 45 favor McMullin by a big margin, while those 45 and older have a clear preference for Trump;
• Voters believe Trump is more honest than Clinton by a margin of 49 percent to 26 percent;
• Trump is preferred by voters on the issue of immigration, with 48 percent saying he would be better on the issue, compared to 39 percent for Clinton;
• Clinton is more trusted when it comes to controlling America's nuclear arsenal, with 45 percent saying they trust her with the U.S. nuclear codes, compared to 36 percent trusting Trump;
• By nearly a 2-to-1 margin 56 percent to 29 percent Utahns say Trump would be better for the economy than Clinton;
• And voters see Clinton's policies as being better for low-income Americans by a margin of 46 percent to 36 percent while Trump's would be better at addressing the needs of middle-class and wealthy Americans.
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