In an election year when voters in record numbers say they’re fed up with major-party nominees Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Utah alone appears poised to walk the walk and deliver a win for independent Evan McMullin.
In no small part, support for McMullin in Utah and a handful of other western states stems from his Mormon faith, but many members of the Church of Latter Day Saints also say he’s the only candidate on the ballot who shares their political vision.
“Usually we have a choice between the lesser of two evils but this year both major candidates are evil. He’s the one I can support,” Wendy Greenman, a lifelong Republican, said during an interview at her home in Kaysville, a tidy suburban community 25 minutes north of Salt Lake City. “I loved that Trump was not polished—which is what I think most people like. I’m still gob-smacked he was the Republican candidate.”
Greenman said she backed Texas Senator Ted Cruz during the primary, though she sheepishly admits that she didn’t actually vote. Like many members of the church, the mother of six says she’s turned off by Trump’s anti-refugee stance and what she said is his intolerance.
“If there was not a third-party candidate I would probably puke and vote for Trump,” Greenman said.
A 40-year-old former CIA operative, investment banker, congressional aide, and graduate of Brigham Young University, McMullin announced an independent run in August. He’s seen his support rise so quickly in his home state that he topped both of the major party hopefuls in Utah in an Oct. 19 poll from Emerson College, with 31 percent of respondents supporting him compared to 27 percent for Trump and 24 percent for Clinton.
A string of other polls and the RealClearPolitics composite average all place McMullin within the margin of error in the state. The trend comes even as McMullin entered the home stretch of the race with just over $44,600 in the bank at the beginning of September—a figure that dipped to a meager $4,316 by the end of the month, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
To be sure, McMullin doesn’t have the name recognition as Mitt Romney, the venture capitalist brought in to fix the troubled Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Romney won Utah in the 2012 presidential election by a margin of 73 percent to 25 percent over President Barack Obama. In fact, McMullin’s campaign wears like a badge of honor the fact that he’s running even with Trump even though about half of Utah voters don’t know him.
Those who do know and support him cite shared values as a reason for their support.
“Most of us in Utah have been taught from an early age that one person can make a difference,” said Calene Van Noy, 42, a Mormon who’s used county websites to do her own data research and tailor her canvassing efforts in her home town of Kaysville. “More than that, we have a responsibility to do something, to be the difference when it is needed. Now, more than ever, with these two awful main candidates for president, the call to do something has come loud and clear.”
McMullin is the first to concede that his popularity in staunchly conservative Utah, where roughly 60 percent of the population is Mormon, is very much tied to the person at the top of the party’s ticket.
“The campaign had just gained traction at a time when Donald Trump was beginning to fall apart and at the same time—at a time and a moment—when Americans were really starting to pay attention to what was happening,” McMullin said during an interview during a campaign stop in Georgia on Oct. 17. “People like our message and like what we stand for. But they are open to someone who’s not a Democrat and not a Republican because their options are so unacceptable.”
As for deep-red Utah in such a state of flux? “We’ve become quite the state this election, right?” he quipped.
A Movement Grows
At McMullin’s seven-room campaign headquarters in Salt Lake City—a banner out front and next to a Thai restaurant—at lunch time on a Tuesday, Van Noy is making posters with markers, while others in the group of about two dozen Facebook-live with fans around the U.S. and plan out canvassing sessions. Children are everywhere. As she makes signs, Van Noy’s two children sit intently at her feet, watching the Disney classic Pinocchio on a television. “A story about Hillary,” she joked.
Brynnley Pyne, a self-employed massage therapist and LDS member from Saratoga Springs, Utah, who has largely put her job on hold to helps coordinate thousands of digital volunteers, munches carrots and slugs water as she helps shape the social-media face of a candidate staffers joke had 30 followers on Twitter and is now at 30 percent in polls.
The shoestring nature of the campaign sticks out everywhere. Supporters go online to share designs for decals, T-shirts and yard signs—the joke is that they post them online under #whatdoyouthinkofthisone. One office worker reminds people to make sure coordinators tell people in states where McMullin won’t be on the ballot that they need to remind voters to write him in on Nov. 8.
For the record, he’s on the ballot in 11 states.
“I might make a little less money, but this state and country deserve better” than Trump or Clinton, Pyne, whose younger sister went to school with McMullin, said of her decision to devote so much time to the effort, as she spoke between tweets and video chatting.
“These are real people. These aren’t bots from Turkey you pay for, these are real Facebook likes and shares,” said Peter Watkins, Mountain West regional director for the campaign in Salt Lake City. “This election is not happy and hopeful, but these people are happy and hopeful.”
The numbers would seem to bear out that point: the Emerson poll found about 74 percent of those tallied have an unfavorable view of Clinton and just fewer than 72 percent felt the same about Trump.
“It all started with a moment in history in which our country is so divided and then you have two really divisive candidates,” Joel Searby, McMullin’s chief campaign strategist, said from Gainesville, Florida. “The table was set for this.”
Searby and the McMullin Army see two distinct goals: become the first independent candidate since 1968 to get on the board with an electoral win, while also sending a clear message.
“We’ve been very honest about the difficulty of preventing either of them from getting to the White House and to 270 votes—although that is real,” Searby said in a telephone interview, referring to the Electoral College votes needed to win the White House. “It’s a message to the country. We’re going to send a message with Utah.”
After making posters and dropping her kids at home, Van Noy knocks on doors in Kaysville with Laura Miller, an Air Force veteran from suburban Philadelphia and a Democrat who flipped her registration to vote against Trump in the Pennsylvania primary. The two had never met in person until Miller began staying with Van Noy’s family to help out for the final push.
“Utah is great but I don't just want Utah—I want Idaho, Colorado, and maybe a swing state,” said Van Noy, who canvassed in 2012 for Romney. “I want to light a fire under people’s rear ends.”
For Greenman, Trump is a “looseball cannon.” Clinton? She broke the law in using her private e-mail server to conduct official business as secretary of state and then destroying some 30,000 messages, she said. McMullin, by contrast, sits in her sweet spot.
Genevieve Peterson, 42, who lives a few doors down from Greenman, said she was already lined up with McMullin before the pair arrived at her door. She said for her, the decision came down to trust in the candidate.
“McMullin has a shot—miracles can happen,” she said during a brief chat on her porch. “At least let the state of Utah show we can take a stand.”
—With assistance from Margaret Newkirk.