'There's something in the water:' Is a historic upset in the making in Utah?

If one were to stand where Arizona, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico meet, one wouldn't have to go far to find people who are voting for a third-party candidate.

Anger in western U.S. is leading to a surge in 3rd-party support in the U.S. presidential election

Cammi Meitler says she was going to vote for Trump. Until 'that video.' (Kim Brunhuber/CBC News)

At the outer edge of a Salt Lake City park, 28-year-old Cammi Meitler is sitting on the grass, singing and playing guitar, rehearsing for her first show.

Like most Mormons in Utah, Meitler and her family have voted Republican for generations. And this year, Donald Trump was their guy. Until "that video."

"Then when we watched that video, that showed his true colours," Meitler says. 

The release of the Access Hollywood video in which Donald Trump is heard bragging about groping women was a turning point for many religious, conservative voters in Utah, according to Quin Monson, a political science professor at Brigham Young University.
BYU political science professor Quin Monson says Republican candidates usually get about 60 per cent support in Utah. Donald Trump's numbers are in the 20s. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC News)

"The tape in particular is a shining example of a moral standard that is pretty starkly rejected by Mormons," Monson says.

Though Trump still has a slim lead in most polls, his popularity in Utah dove.

"In any normal election year in Utah, you would expect a Republican nominee to be pulling in the mid-60s at this point," Monson says. "Any living, breathing, normal Republican candidate should be way ahead. The result of the tape has him falling down to the high '20s."

But Meitler couldn't vote for Hillary Clinton; she didn't trust her. And voting for a Democrat just wasn't in her genes.

"I know in Utah most people are going to vote third-party," Meitler says.

For about 50 years, Utah has voted Republican in the presidential elections. And, as it happens, for about 50 years, no independent presidential candidate has won any state.

This year, both streaks could end.
Here in Utah they've voted for a Republican candidate for more than 50 years. And it's been about that long since any independent candidate won any state. That may change this year. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC News)
The crowd flowed into the corridor at a recent McMullin rally in Bountiful, Utah. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC News)

Bountiful, Utah. A hot, packed town hall. The room isn't big enough; the crowd spills into the hallway. These Republicans were praying for a conservative alternative to Trump. They got Evan McMullin.

McMullin steps on stage with his running mate, Mindy Finn, and the crowd erupts. They've been waiting for this: Anyone But Trump, wrapped nicely in a neat Mormon package.
Until August, 40-year-old Evan McMullin was a congressional Republican staffer and former CIA agent. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC News)

Until August, the 40-year-old McMullin was a Republican congressional staffer. Now he's running for president as an independent. His platform: socially conservative, sans wall.

And he could win, at least here in Utah, thanks to new converts like Carlene Van Noy. She went from curious to campaign volunteer after attending a recent rally.

"Trump has no principles, his thoughts on women are awful, he's no Republican candidate and he never will be," Van Noy says, holding a homemade McMullin sign.

"[McMullin] had the thought: 'maybe I can do something,'' and he did something. So I'm full behind him, he's amazing."

McMullin support has averaged 25 per cent in the last week of polling in Utah. He barely registers in national polls, however, in the rare cases where his name is included.

In a Monmouth University poll this week, support for McMullin stood at 24 per cent, versus Trump at 37 per cent and Clinton at 31.

McMullin supporter Carlene Van Noy says Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump 'are a couple of the worst candidates I can think of to run for president.' (Kim Brunhuber/CBC News)

It may be tempting to write McMullin off as a local phenomenon, but anger with both parties is building across the west. As Monson puts it, "There's something in the water here."

Across the west there's anger at both parties; both Evan McMullin and Gary Johnson have plenty of support in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC News)

If one were to stand in the town of Teec Nos Pos at the Four Corners Monument where Arizona, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico meet, one wouldn't have to go far into any of the four states to find people who are voting either for McMullin or for a very different third-party candidate.

In New Mexico, a Libertarian message has resonated in this freedom-worshipping state. The candidate is the state's former governor Gary Johnson.

Johnson is on the ballot in all 50 states, and his effect in New Mexico, where he is most popular, is opposite to the effect McMullin is having in Utah: he's siphoning votes from Clinton.

Dissatisfaction with two of the least popular presidential candidates in history means many voters like Serena Longstrom are looking to send a message.

"I just want to be able to say that I didn't vote for either one of them," she says. 

 But only days from the election, the signs for Johnson don't look good, and haven't for some time.
Johnson is doing best in his home state of New Mexico, but his national popularity has fallen by about half since September. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC News)

On a roadway in Farmington, N.M., Johnson's roadside election sign is dwarfed by those advertising Trump, Clinton, and even several local candidates. It's symbolic of a low-key, inexpensive campaign.

And nationally, his numbers have dropped because of blunders like his decision to talk with his tongue hanging out of his mouth during one interview, and in another interview, when asked what he would do about Aleppo, he responded with the now much-lampooned "What's Aleppo?"

Two recent polls in New Mexico have Johnson support at either 17 per cent or 22 per cent. Nationally, he is averaging just under five per cent, about half of where he was at the height of his support over the summer.

Evan McMullin is only on the ballot in about a dozen states but is in a tight, three-way race in his home state of Utah.

Counter to prediction

Because polls chronically under-sample young voters, and Mormons tend to be younger as a group, Monson says, McMullin "could have a chance," though he admits 2016 has him stumped.

"Everything about this election cycle has run counter to my prediction so far," Monson says with a smile.

And beyond this election cycle, McMullin has floated the idea of forming a conservative alternative to the Republican party. But that, Monson says, is a non-starter.

"The American political system is stacked against the third-party candidate," Monson says. "Evan McMullin will be a curious footnote," he predicts. "Even more curious if he manages to win one state." 
Those disaffected with both major parties cling to the hope that if independent and third-party candidates can win a few states they might deny both Trump and Clinton the presidency. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Many of McMullin's supporters hope that if he and the other independent candidates like Johnson and the Green Party's Jill Stein can capture a few states, it may be enough to deny either Clinton or Trump the 270 electoral votes they need to win the White House, putting the presidency in the hands of the House of Representatives. As long as McMullin placed in the top three, he'd be eligible.

That's why Meitler's voting for McMullin, and hopes all like-minded conservatives follow suit.

"I think they should all vote third-party and then it'll work out," Meitler says. "It's a no-brainer."

Follow the U.S. election on Tuesday, Nov. 8, with CBC News

CBC online: Our day starts first thing in the morning at with news and analysis. Then as polls close, we'll have live results and insights into the conversations happening on the ground and online. We'll cover the story from a Canadian perspective until a new U.S. president is declared.

CBC Television: America Votes, the CBC News election special with Peter Mansbridge, starts at 8 p.m. ET on News Network and at 9 p.m. ET on CBC-TV. You can also watch our election special through the CBC News app on both AppleTV and Android TV, and on the CBC News YouTube channel.

CBC Radio One: Our election special hosted by Susan Bonner and Michael Enright starts at 8 p.m. ET.


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.


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