For many elite journalists, it has been the big, nagging existential question for more than a year: Who is to blame for the rise of Donald Trump?
For starters, his popularity must have something to do with a revolt among blue-collar and Middle Class white Americans. The press seems to get that, in part because this trend can also be linked to some of the supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders.
But from the get go, journalists have been fascinated by the fact that some religious conservatives have -- no matter how outrageous the past actions of the proud playboy called The Donald -- been willing to forgive Trump's many sins against faith and family.
In other words, when in doubt, blame all those yahoos on the Religious Right.
The problem, of course, was the evidence that the more religious conservatives, you know, spent time in pews and pulpits the less likely they were to support Trump, especially with any sense of enthusiasm. The split between "cultural evangelicals" and the leadership class in their churches kept showing up in the exit polls. And what about Catholics? And Mormons? Is there a reason that someone like Mitt Romney is the face of the #NeverTrump world?
The bottom line: How can journalists cover the "lesser of two evils" story that dominates this year's White House race without weighing the moral and religious issues linked to that dilemma? What kinds of voters are in the most pain, right now, as they contemplate a choice between Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton?
This brings me to two items from The Washington Post that I am convinced are linked. It appears that the political editors at the Post don't see it that way.
Let's start with this headline at the reported blog called The Fix: "This new Utah poll is amazingly bad for Donald Trump." At the heart of the story is a truly shocking set of numbers, if you know anything about GOP life.
A new poll shows that Donald Trump is tied with Hillary Clinton in Utah.
We're not quite saying, of course, that Utah is a tossup or that Trump is in real trouble in the ruby-red state -- or even that it portends trouble for Trump in the 2016 presidential race, more broadly. There are plenty of factors at work here that are unique to Utah. ... But it's also hard to overemphasize how unthinkable it is for a Republican -- any Republican -- to be tied in Utah in any poll.
The poll was conducted by automated pollster SurveyUSA for the Salt Lake Tribune. It has Trump and Clinton tied at 35 percent, with Libertarian Party candidate and former Republican New Mexico governor Gary Johnson at 13 percent.
So what are the "unique" factors in Utah? #DUH
But it's also true that Utah really, really doesn't like Trump. We first saw that in the state's presidential primary, in which Trump finished third -- behind John Kasich! -- at 14 percent, while Ted Cruz took 69 percent of the vote. But this poll really drives it home. Trump is viewed favorably by just 20 percent of the state's voters and unfavorably by 65 percent.
Indeed, Trump's only saving grace here is that he's basically no more unpopular than Clinton, who is at 21 percent favorable and 67 percent unfavorable.
So why doesn't it necessarily mean bad things nationally? Because Utah is a thoroughly unique state. Its population and politics -- and especially its Republican politics -- are dominated by Mormons, who have shown a healthy resistance to all things Trump in a way that basically no other GOP group has.
So what are the Trump issues that cause such "unique" problems for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? The Post team never says, almost certainly because they appear to be rather obvious.
But here is my question: Why is it so obvious that Mormon voters would have "unique" problems when considering a vote for Trump (or Clinton), as opposed to members of other faith groups that strive to apply the teachings of their faith to everyday life? In other words, might pollsters find similar faith-driven voters in other states who are torn up about making this same decision?
Let's call this the "lesser of two evils" primary, which is still going on out there in many pews. As I stated in a post not long ago, anyone who knows anything about GOP life in the post-Ronald Reagan era knows that we are talking about a truly crucial issue. Yes, it's that "pew gap" factor, again.
Please read this material, once again, while thinking about the issues raised in that Post report about the Utah poll:
That "pew gap" phenomenon can be stated as follows: The more non-African-Americans voters attend worship services, the more likely they are to vote for culturally conservative candidates -- almost always Republicans.
As I have stated before, it's hard to find a better illustration of this principle than the overture of the 2003 Atlantic Monthly essay called "Blue Movie." This piece focused on a campaign by Bill, not Hillary Rodham, Clinton, but it remains relevant. This passage is long, but remains essential. ...
And here is that key passage from The Atlantic:
Early in the 1996 election campaign Dick Morris and Mark Penn, two of Bill Clinton's advisers, discovered a polling technique that proved to be one of the best ways of determining whether a voter was more likely to choose Clinton or Bob Dole for President. Respondents were asked five questions, four of which tested attitudes toward sex: Do you believe homosexuality is morally wrong? Do you ever personally look at pornography? Would you look down on someone who had an affair while married? Do you believe sex before marriage is morally wrong? The fifth question was whether religion was very important in the voter's life.
Respondents who took the "liberal" stand on three of the five questions supported Clinton over Dole by a two-to-one ratio; those who took a liberal stand on four or five questions were, not surprisingly, even more likely to support Clinton. The same was true in reverse for those who took a "conservative" stand on three or more of the questions. (Someone taking the liberal position, as pollsters define it, dismisses the idea that homosexuality is morally wrong, admits to looking at pornography, doesn't look down on a married person having an affair, regards sex before marriage as morally acceptable, and views religion as not a very important part of daily life.)
Now, what do you think would happen today if pollsters asked the same questions in Utah? How about large swaths of Texas and the Bible Belt? Would the same stark division show up, once again?
It might. But if you know anything about the life and times of The Donald, you know that many of these morally conservative voters are -- to be blunt -- feeling nauseous just thinking (or praying) about the act of pulling a voting-booth lever next to his name. Do they trust this man, with his history of Planned Parenthood support, to pick U.S. Supreme Court justices?
Now, it just so happens that the Post political team recently produced another major feature about this "lesser of two evils" puzzle, one that ran under the headline, "Clinton and Trump are primed, but the voters are . . . perplexed." Here is some of the summary material:
As voters turn to the real choice that is ahead, they are having trouble getting to yes with either candidate.
In dozens of interviews across the country -- from heavily white small towns in Indiana to black neighborhoods in Charlotte, from retirement communities in suburban Virginia to Hispanic and Muslim enclaves in Las Vegas and New Jersey, respectively -- voters sounded far more passionate talking about why they could not vote for one of the two candidates than in making a positive case for either.
A phrase that came up more than any other was, “the lesser of two evils,” reflecting the fact that Trump and Clinton have higher unfavorability ratings than any two candidates the two parties have put forward since polling began.
Obviously, this story needed to dedicated some space -- probably quite a bit of space -- to the kinds of "unique" issues seen in Utah. Right? While other factors are in play in the "lesser of two evils" primary, clearly the Post political team knew that it had to focus some attention on Catholic voters, Mormons, strong evangelicals, Orthodox Jews and others. Right?
The answer, apparently, is a clear "no."
Once again, the Post team has produced a lengthy news report about the world of #NeverTrump, #NeverClinton voters that offers next to zero content about religious, moral and cultural issues and the voters (mostly in the GOP) who care the most about them.
Yes, Trump's statements about U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel are outraging many people. I get that. I would, for example, think his words are truly offensive to Latino Catholics and evangelicals, the kinds of swing voters who are so crucial to GOP candidates.
This passage is about as close as this latest tone-deaf Post piece comes to wrestling with these factors in the "lesser of two evils" primary.
Jeff Cooprider, a 67-year-old retiree, cast his vote in the Indiana primary for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). He forgives Trump’s comment about Curiel but has another concern: his temperament.
“I think we’re headed for a war if we get Trump in there,” Cooprider said at a McDonald’s in Terre Haute, Ind. “Not just over there, but over here, with all the protesters.”
But, he added, “I just can’t make myself vote for Hillary, so that leaves Trump, I guess.”
Others say they voted for Trump, and remain glad they did.
Gary Shay, 71, was nursing a cup of coffee in Clinton at Benjamin’s restaurant, a .38 Special on his hip. “I want to bring this country back to where it used to be,” Shay said. “It all comes back to basics: He’s a Christian. God, guns and guts. And patriotism.”
Right. If the Post sent reporters to the national Southern Baptist Convention meeting this week in St. Louis, that's all they would hear. Hurrah for God, guns and guts. Go Trump.
Really? That's what the Post team thinks is happening right now among active, faith-centered voters in American pews?