The Power Of The Mormon Vote
In his resignation speech before Congress, Sen. Jeff Flake chided his colleagues for a lack of leadership. He warned the current political climate is being led by those with a compromised moral authority and calculations were being made out of fear of their base.
“When we succumb to those considerations, in spite of what should be greater consideration and imperatives in defense of our institutions and our liberty, we dishonor our principles and forsake our obligations," he said. But with Flake’s departure from the Senate, where will conservative voters looking for a principled leader turn in the age of President Trump?
Building Leadership Through Faith
On a bright Sunday morning in Mesa, music fills the air at the Latter-day Saints Maricopa Stake — one of the oldest collectives of Mormon wards in Arizona. The families in the neighborhood surrounding the church have lived in the area for generations. Andy Jennings takes a seat in his usual row at church. He’s soon surrounded by his children, who pour over him in the pew with demands of books to be read and drawings to be fawned upon. His oldest son, Warren, prepares to pass the sacrament and later Avery Jennings plays a cello number.
After Sacrament meeting, Jennings describes the rest of the day's events. “Our block of church here is three hours long," He said. "So all of the youth and adults split up into different classes.”
After dropping his littlest ones off, the adults gather in smaller groups to discuss Scripture. Finally the men and the women separate for an hour of classes and hymns. Then it’s back to the Jennings house for breakfast.
The six Jennings children surround the dining-room table and drizzle syrup and Nutella on golden waffles straight from the iron. They talk about the service and the day's lessons while 8-year-old Madeleine sings a song she learned at the service. After a second round of waffles, the conversation turns to politics. Andy Jennings says he agrees with Sen. Flake’s call for more principled leadership in government — like the kind they encourage within the Mormon Church.
“You know I’m looking for someone who has strong values — who wants to do what’s right — who wants to be loving and forgiving of others,” he said.
Andy’s wife, Bekah, says that doesn’t necessarily translate to support for just one party.
"I don’t necessarily vote just on my religious issues," she said. "I vote based on a person — how they live in their private life — how do they live their religion. Because I feel like that’s going to translate to the way they will deal with people when they’re working out the fine details of a bill.”
Bekah's father, former state Sen. Jerry Lewis joins us at the dinner table. Lewis, a former president of the Maricopa Stake, says Mormons are fairly united when it comes to moral issues.
"When it comes to candidates," he said, "not so." He believes there are probably more Mormons who vote Democrat than will admit it. "I think a lot of us are just very independent thinking. I think to whitewash our faith or any faith as the faith of one party is very dangerous and is just a stereotype that's not true."
How Do Mormons Vote?
“I’m an independent now," Andy Jennings said. "We’ve been Republican most of our lives — I’m independent at the moment.”
But Quin Monson, a researcher at Brigham Young University, said “When people call themselves independent, they may or may not be independent — exactly.”
Monson studies public opinion and voting behavior at Brigham Young University. He literally wrote the book on Mormons in American politics.
“Mormons are what I would call conservative with a twist or conservative but a little different," Monson said. "In other words they are pro-life, but they’re not stridently pro-life — as a group.”
Monson says most Mormons have views on immigration that are more progressive than those espoused by the Republican base as well. Nevertheless, he said after World War II to present day there has been a gradual swing among Mormons toward the Republican Party.
“It would be my expectation that those attachments have weakened however, with the presidency of Donald Trump," he says.
But Monson doesn’t believe Trump’s presidency will drive Mormons to the Democratic Party. "There’s not a happy home for some of these folks right now — they want to be independent, but they’re wandering a little bit I think. They’re a little bit at a loss.”
A Civically Engaged Population
Despite the heartburn President Trump's rhetoric may be causing some Mormons, Monson doesn’t expect turnout in 2018 will be affected. His research shows that Mormons are more likely to vote and be politically engaged compared to the national average, which he attributes to their tight-knit faith community.
Lynn Burnham is president of the Mesa Arizona Maricopa Stake said the Mormon Church never endorses political candidates or parties.
"But the church invites us to be involved in the political process — to vote — to be involved in the community," he said. "And so you'll see a lot of our members that are on the PTO, they support the schools. We're involved, we want to help make our community better."
Burnham said as Mesa has grown, the percentage of Mormons has decreased, but the members are still very engaged with the community.
"Because they're active, our members are probably able to influence the community at a higher level than other groups who may have larger numbers but don't participate as much," Burnham said.