Presidential elections in America are typically seen as a binary choice between two major-party candidates — currently, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
But the 2016 election brings the potential of a spoiler — and Republicans have taken notice.
If independent candidate Evan McMullin, a former Republican congressional policy leader who just entered the race three months ago as the “Never Trump” candidate, wins his home state of Utah, it’s possible that neither Trump nor Clinton would reach the requisite 270 electoral votes to win the presidency.
McMullin is currently polling between 20% and 24% in Utah, but just weeks ago, polls showed the race deadlocked between McMullin, Trump, and Clinton, a notable feat considering that Utah is a reliably deep-red state.
McMullin’s popularity in Utah is also striking considering the fact that, in a recent poll, only 52% of voters said they were aware enough of his candidacy to offer an opinion on him. And of those who are aware of him, four out of five say they view him favourably.
Trump is aware of the problem. He attacked McMullin this week and noted that his campaign could have a “major problem” if McMullin threatens him in Utah.
“The guy takes votes away from me,” Trump told Fox News last week. “You know, we’re going to win Utah. But he takes votes away from me, this man who I never heard of. … Now, if for some reason we lose Utah that could have a very devastating impact on the overall.”
Other prominent conservative voices have also bashed McMullin in recent weeks.
Conservative commentators Laura Ingraham and Lou Dobbs have attacked McMullin on Twitter:
And Sean Hannity, a Fox News host and Trump loyalist, went off on McMullin on his radio show last week.
“Who’s this idiot that’s running third party that’s killing Trump out in Utah,” Hannity said. “Who put him up? What was it? The Bush people? The Romney people?”
If McMullin managed to pull off a win in Utah, he’d be the first candidate outside of the Democratic and Republican parties to win a state in a presidential election since 1968.
And his campaign views Republican attacks as a sign of Republican panic.
“The Republican Party has major internal and organizational issues both in Utah and beyond,” McMullin campaign manager Joel Searby told Business Insider in an email. “Everyone acknowledges that. And now Evan and our movement are offering a viable conservative alternative. So I believe they feel threatened.”
Still, his only shot at the presidency is to win Utah, block Trump and Clinton from reaching the set number of electoral votes they need, and then hoping that once the decision goes to the House of Representatives, they could pick him for the presidency.
In interviews with Business Insider, some Republicans shrugged off the threat that McMullin could pose to Trump.
“Two new polls came out today that show he’s in the low 20s at best,” said Sean Spicer, communications director for the Republican National Committee. “I am literally appalled by the media fascination with this. There is no evidence that he is within single digits in a state, and yet it garners national news. It is embarrassing for the press.”
Spicer referred to McMullin as a “one-off independent candidate” and said there is “no evidence to suggest” that talk of him winning Utah is “anything more than a bunch of folks in the media.”
But even if victory seems somewhat unlikely for McMullin, voters in conservative, religious Utah appear reluctant to support a Republican nominee whose candidacy has been mired by scandal.
“I think a lot of people in Utah have significant moral sensibilities,” said Ben Carson, a prominent Trump surrogate and former Republican presidential candidate. “And, you know, when you look at some of the things that Donald Trump has said, you remember, this is a guy who was a billionaire playboy. So the sensibilities are going to be quite different I think than your average Iowa citizen.”
In one recent scandal, Trump was recorded making lewd comments about women. The recording, from 2005, was released last month. One poll showed that 94% of Utahns had watched or heard about the recording, and 51% said they believe Trump should drop out of the race altogether.
Carson cautioned Utahns against casting a “protest vote” against Trump on Election Day.
“I’ve been so impressed with the intelligence and the common sense of the people in Utah,” he said. “And I think when push comes to shove, they will recognise what’s going on and how taking a risk in a situation that is a no-win situation like with Evan McMullin doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
In the days leading up to the election, McMullin will be travelling across the state in an effort to consolidate support.
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