Politics & Policy

Jeb and Rubio Battle for Vital Mormon Support in Nevada

Jeb Bush campaigns in New Hampshire in June. (Darren McCollester/Getty)

The race for the Mormon vote is on.

In 2008 and 2012, Mitt Romney’s unprecedented mobilization of LDS voters helped propel him to an important early victory in Nevada’s caucuses. This time around, no one candidate is likely to dominate the Mormon vote the way Romney did, because none of them are running to be the first Mormon president. But several candidates, most notably Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, are nevertheless making concerted efforts to woo LDS voters, enticed by their reliable turnout in the first-in-the-west caucuses, which could be crucial as Republican candidates seek a path to the nomination in a historically crowded primary field.

“If you’ve never visited Nevada and just read national media accounts, you might believe that every Nevada voter was Mormon. And you might believe that the only reason that Romney won was because of Mormons,” says Ryan Erwin, who led Romney’s Nevada efforts in 2008 and 2012 and is working for Bush’s team in the state this cycle.

In fact, Mormons make up just four percent of Nevada’s population, but according to one entry poll, they accounted for 25 percent of the state’s Republican caucusgoers in 2012. And while LDS voters were certainly not the only reason Romney won Nevada, they were a big help: Eighty-eight percent of those who caucused supported Romney in 2012.

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This cycle, Republican operatives in the state say it’s unlikely that Mormons will turn out in such force or that they will unite behind a single candidate. Still, in a state with historically low caucus turnout, where just 10,000 extra votes were good enough to give Romney a nearly 30-point victory over second-place Newt Gingrich in 2012, supporters who can be relied upon to show up to the caucuses make a big difference.

“Romney activated this group probably more than it’s ever been activated in a long time. . . . Right now I think they’re up for grabs,” says GOP consultant Chuck Warren, himself a Mormon.

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Rubio and Bush, in particular, seem to recognize the advantage this could offer them. They have been making overtures to Mormon leaders, and matching each other point for point in rolling out endorsements from high-profile LDS public officials.

Last week, Rubio announced the endorsement of Bruce Woodbury, a former Clark County commissioner who remains hugely influential. Woodbury is an active member of the LDS Church, and someone whose support Nevada Republicans say is helpful for any candidate. That followed the endorsement of Lieutenant Governor Mark Hutchison, another Mormon luminary, in May. A source familiar with the Rubio campaign says this was part of a concerted effort to win over LDS voters.

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Several LDS members say Rubio’s personal story could resonate with church members. The Florida senator was a Mormon for several years as a child, joining the church at the age of eight while his family lived in Las Vegas. He has a first cousin, Mo Denis, who is a Democratic state senator in Nevada and a member of the church.

While Nevada LDS voters are unlikely to be as united behind one candidate this time around, they won’t have to be in order to prove valuable to a campaign.

It’s not something that Rubio necessarily brings up when he talks to LDS voters, according to those who spoke with National Review, but it has been reported many times, and he wrote about it in his autobiography An American Son. Several LDS members say Rubio’s background is appealing because it suggests he understands and respects their culture and religion.

Endorsements, like those of Woodbury and Hutchison, don’t necessarily do a lot on paper. Few people are swayed to vote for a candidate just because they know someone who is backing that person. But Woodbury and Hutchison are still valuable supporters to Rubio, as two prominent LDS members with networks he can tap and an apparent willingness to help convince people to back him.

Hutchison, for instance, hosted a meet-and-greet for Rubio in early July, and a number of those in attendance, according to somebody who was there, were Mormons with whom Hutchison attended church.

Bush’s team has also rolled out a number of endorsements from prominent members of the church. And, operationally speaking, Bush may have a leg up on Rubio: The top consultants running his campaign in Nevada also ran Romney’s winning efforts there in 2008 and 2012.

RELATED: Is Jeb Bush Shifting to the Right?

The same day that Rubio announced Woodbury’s endorsement, Bush rolled out the endorsement of state Senate majority leader Paul Anderson, another Nevada Republican who ranks at the top of the list of coveted Mormon endorsements. And earlier this month, ahead of a series of campaign stops in the state, Bush rolled out the endorsements of Nevada senator Dean Heller and Utah senator Orrin Hatch. The timing of the announcements just before a Nevada swing was no accident: Hatch and Heller are both high-profile members of the LDS Church.

#related#The arms race for endorsements aside, campaigns remain wary of heightened expectations in the wake of Romney’s 2012 success. This time around, operatives say they expect Mormon voters to make up a much smaller percentage of caucusgoers — several predict it to be around 15 percent.

“It’s different with a different candidate than Romney,” says Erwin. “He had a unique ability to pull together a coalition that isn’t traditionally pulled together.”

While Nevada LDS voters are unlikely to be as united behind one candidate this time around, they won’t have to be in order to prove valuable to a campaign. They tend to be reliable, consistent caucusgoers, who can be counted on both to show up and to know what they’re doing once they get there. In the face of the unpredictable turnout inherent to caucuses in general, and the Silver State’s caucuses in particular, such voters could make a major difference. In such a crowded field, the Rubio and Bush campaigns are making an effort to ensure that that difference redounds to their benefit.

— Alexis Levinson is a senior political reporter for National Review.

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