SALT LAKE CITY — The headline in the New Yorker about the results of Utah’s Republican caucus presidential vote suggests the state had a big impact on the race: “How Mitt Romney and the Mormons saved the ‘Never Trump’ movement.”
The article by Ryan Lizza posted Wednesday said Utah “put at least a temporary brake on the (Donald) Trump coronation” by giving Texas Sen. Ted Cruz a big enough win last Tuesday to keep the GOP front-runner from getting any delegates.
But others aren’t so sure Utah slowed Trump’s momentum going into the next round of primaries that begin April 5 in Wisconsin and include New York on April 19 and Pennsylvania on April 26.
“You don’t want to overread too much,” Chuck Todd, NBC News political director and moderator of “Meet the Press,” told KSL and the Deseret News, noting Trump has lost in other caucus states, including Minnesota and Iowa.
“I think Utah was easy to make happen. It would have been much worse had the ‘Stop Trump’ forces not been able to deny Trump any delegates,” Todd said. “But Utah was a relatively easy test for the ‘Stop Trump’ movement.”
Easy, Todd said, because of how the billionaire businessman and reality TV star comes across to voters in a predominantly Mormon state.
“Donald Trump’s persona and Utah just don’t fit,” Todd said. “You can’t help but wonder if faith didn’t play a large role, that Donald Trump’s morals, or perceived morals, just don’t match that of the Mormon community in Utah.”
He also cited Romney’s outsized influence in Utah.
In a Facebook post the Friday before the vote, Romney urged Utahns to join him in voting for Cruz as “the only way” to ensure Trump doesn’t have enough delegates to secure the GOP nomination before the Republican National Convention.
Romney and others in the GOP establishment want to see a contested convention in July, so delegates can choose a candidate other than Trump no matter how significant his lead is.
“I do think Mitt Romney’s words mattered a lot. I think it’s not just Romney, though,” Todd said, citing former Gov. Mike Leavitt, who endorsed Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and other Utah politicians “not comfortable siding” with Trump.
Utahns did listen to Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee and a favorite son since leading the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Cruz had nearly 70 percent of the vote, followed by Kasich and then Trump.
But Todd said going forward, neither Cruz nor Kasich are “strong enough to be the dominant anti-Trump candidate.” He warned if they don’t start working together to divvy up the remaining states, the effort to stop Trump won’t gain momentum.
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said it’s too soon to tell if Utah has had a lasting effect on the effort to keep Trump off the top of the ticket.
“Whether or not this turns into something bigger depends on what happens next. My sense is some people may be inclined to dismiss Utah as just an outlier, a state that is different from others,” Karpowitz said.
Nationally, “the way the story has been spun is mostly that Mormons rejected Trump and there’s good reason to believe in fact that’s the case,” he said. “It’s not clear to me people are saying, ‘That’s a reason for us to reject him, too.'”
However, Karpowitz said if Cruz does well in the upcoming primaries, “Utah could be seen in retrospect as the turning point in the movement. But they still face a significant battle” to slow Trump’s march toward the nomination.
Adam Brandon, president and CEO of FreedomWorks, a national tea party organization, said Cruz’s victory in Utah gives his campaign a boost and also makes it clear Cruz is the best alternative to Trump.
Brandon said the successes of both Trump and Cruz so far make it “very clear there is no fight between the grass-roots and the establishment. The grass-roots has just won.”
Cruz, Brandon said, is the best choice if the GOP doesn’t want to alienate Trump supporters completely. He said other candidates could also emerge, such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who dropped out of the race early on.
One of Trump’s top surrogates, his son, Donald Trump Jr., said before the caucus vote that Utah wasn’t one of the campaign’s stronger states even though his father is “probably much more in sync with the people here than they would ever imagine.”
Trump Jr. said Romney had become “a puppet of the establishment” after seeking his father’s endorsement in 2012 and asking for campaign contributions from Trump family members.
Pollster Dan Jones, who found that Utahns would vote for a Democrat for president for the first time since 1964 if Trump were the Republican nominee, said Tuesday’s caucus vote did resonate outside the state.
“It’s had great impact. It really turned the momentum,” Jones said, with many now seeing a contested GOP convention as a given. But the prospect of a Trump nomination still looms large for Utah Republicans, he said.
“I’m telling you right now, there are a lot of Republicans in Utah who are frightened,” Jones said, that voters either won’t show up at the polls in November or will take a closer look at their choices for all offices on the ballot.
Utah GOP Chairman James Evans is already talking about a “Plan T for Trump” to get out the Republican vote. “There’s a difference between your presidential candidate and then those candidates on the ticket here in Utah,” Evans said.
Not surprisingly, Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon relishes the possibility of Trump being the GOP nominee this year. Democrats added 20,000 new voters to their rolls at their presidential preference caucus.
“Waiting and praying. Praying and waiting,” Corroon said. “I think he could do more for Utah Democrats than anything we could do.”