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SALT LAKE CITY – The usual cohesion of voters in the conservative Republican stronghold of Utah has been blown up this election season by Donald Trump's crudeness and volatility, creating unprecedented uncertainty in a must-win state for the GOP candidate.
Trump may still squeak out a victory to win Utah's six electoral votes, but the state's widespread aversion to the brash billionaire has soared following the release of a 2005 recording of Trump degrading women. An increasing number of the state's mostly Mormon voters are considering casting ballots instead for third-party candidates Evan McMullin and Gary Johnson.
That opens the possibility that four presidential candidates could each earn 10 percent of the vote in the state, a rare occurrence in presidential elections. The result could be an improbable victory by Democrat Hillary Clinton if she captures just one-third of the state's votes. Democratic candidates have achieved this level several times in the last five decades, but it was never enough for victory.
It's difficult to see Trump losing Utah and still winning the White House. Even with Utah, he has a narrow path for capturing the 270 electoral votes in the state-by-state contest for the presidency. If he loses a state considered solidly Republican, that path may be effectively closed.
While Clinton may benefit from the disenchantment with Trump, she's not the candidate getting a bump from Trump defectors. McMullin is the one enjoying a surge of attention. He's a Brigham Young University graduate, former CIA officer, investment banker and congressional aide.
Despite about half the state not knowing who he is, McMullin has a profile that reassures voters as a Utah-born, straight-arrow Mormon Republican, said Quin Monson, a longtime political analyst and founder of Y2K Analytics. The polling firm surveyed 500 likely voters this week and found McMullin narrowly trailing Trump and Clinton, who were tied. The poll's margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
"McMullin allows them a place to go," Monson said.
Scott Woolston, a Mormon father of seven and Republican, is among those considering McMullin. To Woolston, the Trump recording reaffirmed his suspicions that Trump's personal morality and core values are lacking.
"I've looked at what's his name, Evan McMullin. He has some things I really like, but there's a couple of issues I disagree with him on," said Woolston, 35, a mechanical engineer. "But on most things, we overlap fairly well."
After the release of the recording on Friday, Utah leaders led a national charge to drop support for Trump, with Gov. Gary Herbert rescinding his support first. Calls followed from Sen. Mike Lee, Reps. Jason Chaffetz, Chris Stewart and Mia Love, and former Gov. Jon Huntsman for Trump to abandon his campaign.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declined to get involved, but the church-owned Deseret News newspaper published a scathing editorial Saturday calling for Trump to step aside, saying "What oozes from this audio is evil." The newspaper hadn't weighed in on a presidential campaign in 80 years.
The state's disdain for Trump has been on display throughout the election cycle, highlighted by Utah's March caucus, when Trump earned only 14 percent of the votes. Helping to fuel that is Utah's favorite politician, Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee and a leading critic of Trump.
Yet despite the pervasive anti-Trump sentiment and bump for McMullin, the fact remains that many of the state's voters have never voted for a non-Republican presidential candidate and come from families deeply rooted in conservative principles.
Republicans outnumber Democrats four-to-one among the state's 1.3 million active voters. No Democratic presidential candidate has won in Utah since Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater in 1964. The last four Republican presidential nominees have won the state by an average of 41 percentage points. The closest election of the last half century was 1992, when George H. W. Bush beat third-party candidate Ross Perot by 15 percentage points.
Not all of Utah's Republican leaders have abandoned Trump.
The chairman of Utah's Republican Party, James Evans, came out this week in support of Trump. He said in a statement that Trump's crude comments in the 2005 video were made "when he was in the environment of Hollywood and the political left." Rep. Rob Bishop said he still supports Trump because he's the party's nominee even though Bishop doesn't condone the attitude toward women in the video.
Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said he thinks it's a longshot for Clinton or McMullin to carry the state because many voters are likely to vote for Trump despite saying otherwise.
"There are core issues that are bigger than Donald Trump," Perry said, "Issues like the next Supreme Court nominee."
Mike Taylor is no fan of Trump, but he dislikes Clinton even more because of her tax plans. He'd love to get behind McMullin, but doesn't want to vote for somebody who can't win.
"I may just plug my nose and vote for Trump, but frankly, that's going to be a really tough thing to do," said Taylor, 63, the owner of a rental car company. "I just can't imagine another four or eight years of liberal administration."