SALT LAKE CITY — Republican nominee Donald Trump leaves many in Utah cold despite the state’s deep-red credentials, but voters eyeing third-party candidate Gary Johnson may be feeling some whiplash Thursday.
The day after political heavyweight Mitt Romney name-dropped him on Twitter, the former New Mexico governor seemed to reveal a hole in his foreign-affairs knowledge when he was befuddled by an otherwise routine question about the Syrian city of Aleppo.
Johnson, whose campaign is based in Salt Lake City, received national attention Thursday morning after he was asked on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” what he would do as president about the Syrian city at the center of the refugee crisis, Johnson replied, “And what is Aleppo?”
Johnson later acknowledged the error, saying he “blanked” and had been thinking of an acronym, not the Syrian city.
The interview came less than 24 hours after Mitt Romney, a high profile critic of Donald Trump, emerged from a relative silence on Twitter to say, “I hope voters get to see former GOP Governors Gary Johnson and Bill Weld on the debate stages this fall.”
Chris Karpowitz, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, said it’s unclear how much of an effect Romney’s message and Johnson’s misstep will have in Utah, where the overwhelmingly conservative state has given a relatively lukewarm response for Trump.
Foreign policy isn’t high on the priority for a lot of voters, but “it certainly wasn’t a great moment for Gary Johnson,” Karpowitz said.
Karpowitz said Romney is a respected voice in Utah but the tweet may not give Johnson much of a boost. It wasn’t a full-throated endorsement and the election battle at this point is centered around Trump and Clinton and Romney has “yielded the stage.”
Romney, among the most high-profile Mormons in America, remains very popular in Utah, a state where more than 60 percent of residents belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Jonathan Choate, a Johnson supporter from Logan, said he thinks Romney’s tweet will encourage more Utah voters to give Johnson serious consideration, but he’d love to see a Romney endorsement.
“I think it is the appropriate time for him to step up and make definitive statements rather than hints,” Choate said. “We’re past the hinting stages.”
Choate said Johnson’s response to the Aleppo question might hurt him with Utah voters, but he thinks it was an understandable mistake because Johnson was asked the question without proper context about Syria.
The misstep comes after another Johnson made this summer that linked Mormons to violence, Karpowitz noted.
In an interview in July with the Washington Examiner, Johnson said he didn’t support religious freedom exemptions to anti-discrimination laws, saying, “Back to Mormonism. Why shouldn’t somebody be able to shoot somebody else because their freedom of religion says that God has spoken to them and that they can shoot somebody dead.”
His campaign later issued an apology in a statement calling the comment a “very imprecise reference to the violence that accompanied the Mormon’s early history in the 1800s.”