- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 9, 2016

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Republican Donald Trump fared better than expected in Utah - scoring an easy win thanks to surprisingly solid backing among Mormon voters and support from potential voters for independent Evan McMullin who feared they would help Democrat Hillary Clinton and cast their ballots for Trump as a result.

Trump had a lead among Mormon voters, with half saying they picked the Republican, exit polls conducted for the AP and the television networks showed.

Mormons, who account for nearly two-third of the state’s residents, chaffed throughout the campaign at Trump’s personal life, his brash demeanor and his comments about women, minorities and Muslims.

About three in 10 Mormon voters threw their support behind McMullin, roughly double the support Clinton won with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

A late push by Sen. Orrin Hatch and other top Utah Republican leaders imploring voters to “come home” to support Trump rather than risk a McMullin vote helping Clinton steal the state also seemed to help nudge voters back to their deeply Republican roots.

That allowed Trump to comfortably win Utah, considered a toss-up state, even though he earned the lowest winning percentage of any GOP presidential candidate in the state in 24 years.

Indications that the national race between Trump and Clinton was tightening in the final week likely played a major factor with possible McMullin voters, said Quin Monson, a longtime political analyst and founder of Y2K Analytics polling firm.

“Some McMullin voters got cold feet because they really don’t like Hillary Clinton and they didn’t want to be part of allowing Utah to help her win,” Monson said.

The ability in Utah to vote straight ticket also probably helped Trump, said Boyd Matheson, a veteran Utah Republican strategist who runs the conservative Sutherland Institute.

“I think they were uncertain about what the Evan McMullin vote would mean, so it became easier to go straight party,” Matheson said. “An uncertain voter is almost always going to default to their core, meaning to the party.”

The late Republican “come home” push seemed to help thwart the momentum for McMullin, a Mormon and former CIA operative who was surging in polls amid the widespread discomfort Utah’s largely Mormon and conservative voters had with Trump.

Many of Utah’s leaders and prominent Mormon elected officials had refused to back Trump, such as Gov. Gary Herbert, Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Mia Love, while others flipped between supporting and denouncing the brash billionaire. The vocal opposition left many people who liked Trump reluctant to come out in support, said Kathleen Anderson of Bountiful, president of Utah Federation of Republican Women.

The pro-Trump rallies “gave people confidence and assurance that they weren’t alone in their support,” Anderson said.

Trump had 47 percent of the vote with about three-fourths of votes counted as of Wednesday afternoon. Clinton finished second with 28 percent.

McMullin tallied about 20 percent of the vote - the best finish by a third party candidate in Utah since Ross Perot in 1992.

That same year was the last time the Republican candidate earned less than 50 percent of Utah’s vote. George H.W. Bush received 41 percent in his victory over Bill Clinton.

The past four Republican candidates all earned at least 63 percent of the vote, including Mitt Romney earning 73 percent in his 2012 win over Barack Obama.

Anderson predicted early on that Trump would win Utah and the presidency and joined his campaign as a Utah surrogate, speaking to rallies and to groups to encourage support.

She said those who didn’t see the Trump win coming either refused to accept his wave of support or had their heads buried in the sand and missed how many people were hurting from lost jobs or unaffordable health care.

Anderson was among Utah voters who deeply disliked Clinton. For Anderson, it goes back to 1992, when Clinton, speaking about her career, famously said she never “stayed home and baked cookies.”

Anderson, a working mother turned a stay-at-home mother, said Clinton’s comment was insulting and dismissive, and “I’ve always known that Hillary Clinton didn’t represent my values.”

Trump’s inability to get past 50 percent of the votes in a state where Republican voters outnumber Democrats four-to-one among the 1.4 million active registered voters showed how fractured GOP voters were this election, Matheson said.

McMullin’s ability to get 20 percent of the votes in a reliably Republican state despite entering the race three months ago points to lingering unrest among the state’s conservatives, Matheson said.

McMullin vowed on election night to keep fighting for a new conservative movement that is inclusive and open to people of all races and religions.

“They may have called people home,” Matheson said in reference to the GOP battle cry, “But I don’t know that they got them all the way inside the house.”

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