SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Mormons Manuel and Claire Saldana say they normally identify with Republican values and principles, but the Virginia couple is struggling to stay on board with the GOP after Donald Trump became the party's presidential nominee.
Trump's inability to connect with Mormon voters such as the Saldanas is likely the main reason the Republican hold on voters from the conservative faith has slipped significantly since 2012, according to a Pew Research Center survey released Tuesday.
It found that 48 percent of Mormon registered voters now describe themselves as Republican — down from 61 percent four years ago when Mitt Romney, a Mormon himself, was the party's presidential nominee.
The survey shows that most of the former Republicans now consider themselves independent.
It also indicated that 13 percent of Mormons surveyed are Democrats — down slightly from 14 percent four years ago.
Claire Saldana, a children's book illustrator and mother of four, said she definitely won't vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton but is still trying to get past her reservations about Trump.
"I felt he was someone who was crass and incapable of carrying on an intelligent and open-minded and kind relationship with other countries," said Saldana, who served a Mormon mission in Brazil and whose husband is from Peru. "I'm becoming more interested in him. I'm not sure he's really as crass as he comes off. He may actually be the best candidate."
A similar shift from Republican affiliation has occurred among the top 15 leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Currently, six are registered Republican while nine are unaffiliated voters, according to Utah public records obtained by The Associated Press. Church President Thomas S. Monson is a Republican.
Four years ago, 11 of the top 15 Mormon leaders were Republicans and four were unaffiliated, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.
Publicly, the church is careful to maintain political neutrality by refraining from backing one party or endorsing candidates. But Mormon leaders sometimes weigh in on what they consider crucial moral issues.
This year, the Utah-based church defended religious liberty after Trump suggested banning Muslims from entering the U.S. Mormons say the suggestion harkens to past efforts to persecute members of their own faith.
David Campbell, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame who wrote a book on Mormons and politics, called the Pew findings remarkable since big fluctuations in party affiliations are rare.
The change found by Pew is the largest from one presidential election cycle to the next in the religion since the organization began tracking the data in 1994.
The Trump effect has accelerated a gradual trend away from the Republican party among Mormons that's been underway for two decades, Campbell said. It was briefly reversed in 2012 with Romney, a dream candidate for the religion.
"For those people who are kind of unsure if they're truly Republican, Trump is enough to definitely push them out, opposite to the way that Romney was able to pull them in," Campbell said.
Trump's famously brash temperament and colorful language, combined with concerns about his past, have alienated many Mormons.
Romney, who is among the most high-profile Mormons in America, has also been a persistent critic of Trump. He delivered a speech in Utah earlier this year ripping the candidate as a "phony" who is unfit for office.
Matthew Millburn, 35, a Republican party delegate in Utah, agrees with Romney. Millburn plans to cast his ballot for independent candidate Evan McMullin, a relatively unknown ex-CIA officer and Brigham Young University graduate who is on the ballot in Utah and a few other states.
"He doesn't share my values," Millburn said of Trump. "All he cares about is himself and power. He's a con-man just trying to deceive people into supporting him.
Crystal Young-Otterstrom, vice chair of the LDS Democrats of America, said more Republicans are open to hearing her pitch.
"Trump at the top of the ticket has helped form a wedge in this almost sacred connection between Republicanisms and Mormonism," Young-Otterstrom said. "It's really helping Mormon voters to see that maybe what they believe in, their values, really aren't Republican values."
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