As the setting sun flooded a meeting of Utah County Republicans, Melanie Sorensen described her concerns about her party’s presumptive presidential nominee.
First, she spoke about Donald Trump’s suggestion that he may violate party orthodoxy and back a minimum wage increase. Then, she addressed his tendency to take different sides of the same issue. Then, the image he projects to the world.
“I’m certainly a ‘Never Hillary’ person but I may also be a ‘Never Trump’ person,” said Sorensen, 42, a homemaker who spends countless hours volunteering for the GOP. “It’s a nightmare. I’m living in a nightmare.”
Voters in this slice of deeply conservative Utah are experiencing an acute version of the political panic attack that’s gripped much of the GOP since Trump’s remaining rivals dropped out last week.
Utah County, 30 miles south of Salt Lake City, was never going to support Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. It’s home to Brigham Young University, and 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney won 88% of its voters against President Barack Obama. But it’s also the conservative heart of Utah, whose voters were among the most resistant to Trump in the nominating contest.
The billionaire won only 14% of the votes at the Republican caucuses in March. Trump’s boastful, populist approach offends many in a deeply religious state that values humility, personal ethics and traditional conservative values. “What’s more important to us is the life led, the character of the candidate for office,” said Robert Craig, 55, a businessman and another member of the Utah County party’s executive committee.
The way Utah’s Republicans grapple with Trump’s nomination may say a lot about his viability in November. No presidential nominee in recent decades has won the White House without overwhelming support from voters of his own party—typically 90% of them or more—but the GOP is badly splintered over Trump.
U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., set off a firestorm last week when he said Trump had not yet earned his endorsement. The last two GOP presidents—George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush—said they wouldn’t attend the party’s July convention where Trump awaits the nomination.
Some Utah Republicans are grudgingly lining up behind Trump. U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, who called Trump “our Mussolini” in March, now calls for party unity. “While Mr. Trump wasn’t my first choice, we must move forward and unite to defeat Hillary Clinton,” he said.
K.C. Bezant contemplated what to do as he hurried back from his lunch break to the furniture store in the University Mall where he works. “Not a big fan,” he said of Trump. Bezant voted for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the caucuses. Another salesman, David Bauer, 69, met Bezant as he walked in.
“Are you going to vote for Trump?” Bezant asked Bauer, who had also supported Cruz in the caucuses.
“Yeah,” Bauer answered. “I don’t like Hillary. I’ll vote for him. Not voting is just putting another vote in Hillary’s back pocket.”
“Yeah,” Bezant said. “I’ll do it.”
Not everyone in the store was as sanguine.
Tammy Pawlowski, 58, was horrified when Trump said this year that he never had asked God for forgiveness. She’s Mormon, “and repentance is a big thing for us,” Pawlowski said. “We have to be accountable to somebody—we need to be accountable to God for what we do and to people. If you’re not going to be accountable to anyone, then you don’t care about anyone but yourself.”
Pawlowski said she might actually end up voting for Clinton: “I would actually pick her over Trump.”
In more than two dozen interviews of Republicans in Orem, Pawlowski was the only one who said she might vote for Clinton. But some were seeking third-party escape hatches from what they considered to be an impossible choice. “I keep hoping for a do-over,” said Amy Gertsch, 40, a professional pet blogger who preferred Sen. Rand Paul, an early dropout.
At the county GOP meeting, between the Pledge of Allegiance and a discussion of local races, executive committee members were trying to find a reason to support their party’s nominee. “What could help Donald Trump move more people in the Republican Party to his side is to pick a vice president, and have more people around him, who are conservative,” said Joe Phelon, 44. Heads nodded approvingly, and an excited murmur rippled through the room when someone mentioned a rumor that Trump would select U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, chairman of the House committee investigating the 2012 attack against Americans in Benghazi, Libya, as his attorney general.
“We’re waiting to see what Mr. Trump would do,” said Ben Summerhalder, 63. “If we were voting today I’d have to hold my nose—he’s boorish, he’s not a conservative.”
Some are more open to Trump. The billionaire was software developer Lowell Nelson’s third choice out of the 17 Republicans who competed for the nomination, and Nelson backed Cruz in the caucuses. But now Trump will get his vote.
“He has stood firm against the trade deals and on immigration,” Nelson said. “Anything to get the establishment, the neoconservatives, angry, I’m OK with that.”
But even in this group of loyal, hard-core Republicans, some thought they wouldn’t vote for the nominee.
“A ‘no’ vote,” said Anna Standage, 49, “is still a vote.”