Arizona and Utah are about to provide the first real test of whether the “stop Trump” effort is beginning to take hold — or whether it is doomed to fail.
By all indications, GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump should prevail in Tuesday’s winner-take-all primary contest in Arizona, where his anti-illegal immigrant, “let’s build a wall” message plays well with voters. Trump is making the most of his backing from former Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio — two of the most ardent champions of cracking down on illegal immigrants.
In the final days of the campaign, Trump held a 13-point lead in the Arizona contest, according to RealClearPolitics, with an average of 34 percent support among likely Republican caucus-goers, to 21 percent for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and 12.5 percent for Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
While Trump is almost certain to lose big time in Utah — where Mitt Romney and many other of the state’s massive Mormon population revile his crude language and calls for mass deportations and barring Muslims from entering the country — the billionaire businessman is fighting hard to prevent Cruz from garnering more than 50 percent of the overall caucus vote and capturing all 40 national delegates.
If Cruz has a big night by nearly matching Trump’s performance in Arizona and sweeping the Utah caucuses despite added pressure from Kasich, the Texas senator will be able to brag that he indeed is the last best hope to deny Trump the 1,237 delegates needed heading into the July GOP national convention in Cleveland.
“Everybody's assumption is that Cruz will easily top 50 percent in Utah, especially after the Romney semi-endorsement and then Trump's attacks on Romney,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato. “So that's not going to be much of an indication of anything. Trump has done badly in Mormon areas from the start of the season.”
Arizona is more significant, Sabato said. “Trump has many advantages there — Brewer, Arpaio, the immigration issue generally, etc. If this turns out to be close — a few percentage points — it would get everyone's attention. If Cruz takes Arizona, then 1,237 [delegates needed for the nomination] looks more distant for Trump.”
A new Salt Lake Tribune/YZ Analytics poll released over the weekend showed Cruz surging to 53 percent support among likely Republican caucus-goers, followed by Kasich with 29 percent and Trump at just 11 percent. According to the pollster, Cruz was helped after Florida Sen. Marco Rubio pulled out of the presidential race last week and many of his supporters shifted their allegiance to the Texas conservative.
Cruz needs at least 50 percent of the total vote in order to claim all 40 national delegates. If he falls below that figure, then he, Kasich and Trump would divvy up the delegates on a proportionate basis. By contrast, the candidate who wins a plurality of the votes in Arizona will claim all 58 delegates.
The Utah news organization survey was conducted last Thursday through Saturday, when Cruz barnstormed the state with Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), former GOP candidate Carly Fiorina and conservative commentator Glenn Beck. It also coincided with Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee and a leading figure among Utah’s Mormon population, once again denouncing Trump as vulgar and dangerous to the country and saying he was voting for Cruz.
A full two-thirds of Utah’s population are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a faith that has long advocated religious tolerance. That is why Trump’s call for barring Muslims from this country and deporting illegal immigrants has drawn fire from Mormons in Utah, Nevada and other strongholds of the faith. Trump probably didn’t help his cause much last Friday by once again mocking Romney for losing the 2012 election to President Obama and questioning whether Romney was a true Mormon.
"He’s a choke artist, I can’t believe," Trump said in Utah. "Are you sure he’s a Mormon? Are we sure?"
Feelings run so high against Trump in Utah, a dependable red state in presidential politics, that 81 percent of the Republican respondents to the survey said that the Republican Party had gotten off “on the wrong track.” Moreover, 64 percent of them said that Trump would make the party even weaker if he became the GOP presidential nominee.
The contrast in GOP voter attitudes about Trump between Utah and neighboring Arizona to the south are startling.
Arizona, one of four states that border Mexico, is home to an estimated 300,000 illegal immigrants – the most of any state. The state’s school system is brimming with students who have at least one parent who is in the country illegally, and many residents are furious that illegal immigrants are taking their jobs or draining government resources.
Even as the number of illegal immigrants in this country has declined in recent years as the economy improved in Mexico, anti-immigrant feelings continue to run high in Arizona and other border states. Voters in these states have been highly receptive to Trump and his call for building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and arresting and deporting more than 11 million illegal immigrants.
Trump has found a strong ally in Arpaio, who is notorious for his alleged abuse of power by racially profiling, arresting and jailing Hispanics and illegal immigrants. Trump fondly invokes the name of “Sheriff Joe” in discussing his view on illegal immigration.
Last Saturday, Arpaio intervened after protesters blockaded the entrance to a Trump rally in the Phoenix suburb of Fountain Hills, which falls within the sheriff’s jurisdiction. Arpaio later introduced Trump at the delayed rally and announced that three protesters had been arrested. “We had a little problem,”Arpaio said, according to media reports, but “If they think they’re going to intimidate you and the next president of the United States, it’s not going to happen. Not in this town, I’ll tell you right now.”