Evan McMullin’s improbable third-party presidential campaign received a boost Wednesday with the release of a new poll of McMullin’s home state, Utah, showing him just four points behind Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. It was amazing enough that pollsters from the Salt Lake City-based firm Y2 Analytics found the Republican and Democratic candidates tied at 26 percent in one of the nation’s reddest states. But it was downright astonishing that an unknown like McMullin could be hot on their heels with 22 percent.

The day before the results were announced, I sat down with McMullin, a 40-year old ex-CIA operative, and his running mate, Mindy Finn, a 35-year old Republican politico and founder of a group called Empowered Women, in a temporary office not far from the Capitol. We talked some political strategy — just how, precisely, does he plan to win 270 electoral votes? — but more of the conversation was devoted to the Republican Party’s policies and its appeal, or lack of appeal, to minority and millennial voters.

There were plenty of difficulties and shortcomings to discuss, but the bottom line was this: McMullin believes the Republican Party is rife with racism. “That’s the problem,” he said simply. He has few, if any, ideas to change GOP policies, but he believes it is imperative that the party change its tone. And he thinks he is the candidate who can do it, or at least begin to do it.

Our conversation began with a discussion of Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012. The GOP did “a terrible job in outreach and appealing to nonwhite voters,” Finn said. McMullin agreed, adding, “It’s nonwhite voters, but it’s also millennials, it’s also women — these are all groups that the Republican Party needed to appeal more to.”

How does the GOP do that? What should it change? Are there issues on which the party has lost the voters’ trust? I brought up the Democrats’ losses in 1980, 1984, and 1988, and how in 1992 Democrats finally faced the fact that they were out of touch with voters. Does the post-2012 GOP need some sort of reckoning along the lines of what happened with the Democratic Leadership Council?

No, McMullin said, the GOP is already mostly right on the issues. The party’s real problem is something much more fundamental. “The Republican Party has a problem now with people, candidly, in its ranks, members and some voters, who don’t embrace, I think, some foundational truths upon which our country was founded and which it has drawn nearer to over time.”

“Number one is that we are all created equal,” McMullin continued. “That is something that Donald Trump, I don’t believe, has embraced, nor have some of his supporters. And it’s a deep problem in the Republican Party, and that’s just the truth.”

McMullin described meeting recently with a group of African-American faith leaders. They felt left out of the Democratic Party, which they believed did not respect their faith, but they also felt the Republican Party didn’t want them.

“There’s no reason for that,” McMullin said. “Those people should be with the conservative movement and with the party that is its political vehicle. But they can’t be with the Republicans because they feel they’re not welcome because of the color of their skin.”

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McMullin explained that he, like other Republicans, has heard for years from Democrats that the GOP is racist. He always rejected that kind of thinking. He rejected it, that is, until the last few years, when he worked in a senior staff position for the GOP in the House of Representatives.

“I spent a lot of time in the Republican Party believing that that was something Democrats and liberals would say, [people] who weren’t interested in really understanding who we were,” McMullin said. “But I have to say in the time that I spent in the House of Representatives and leadership and in senior roles there, I realized that no, they’re actually right. And Donald Trump made it ever more clear that there is a serious problem of racism in the Republican Party. That is the problem. Not conservative ideals. Racism is not conservatism. And that’s what I’m talking about. That’s the problem.”

How can the GOP move forward? I asked if there were policy changes it should pursue — trade, or taxes, or entitlements, or something — to broaden its appeal.

Not really, McMullin said. “We learned lessons after 2012 that we needed to appeal to [minority and younger voters], I don’t think by changing policy as much” — McMullin stopped himself to list some issues the GOP might take up, mentioning criminal justice reform, anti-poverty programs, and general government reform — “but it’s a lot about tone.”

“You have a candidate here in Donald Trump who’s attacking people based on their race, their religion, their gender,” McMullin said. “Republicans are doubling down on these key weaknesses that came out of 2012. That’s not to say that Mitt Romney did the same things. But he did not appeal to them the way we needed to. But it’s not just about him, it’s about the whole party.”

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Later, McMullin said he wanted to clarify his remarks a bit. “I believe that true conservative principles are the answer to these challenges that we’re describing and appealing to these different groups,” he began. “The Republican Party has deviated from that for a while — I’m talking about the growth of government. The Republican Party has contributed to that. Depriving people of their individual liberties. I’m talking about crony capitalism, which is something I saw from the inside. It’s a terrible thing. That also deprives people of their liberties and deprives the economy of vibrancy.”

“So true conservative principles — I don’t think we need to change any of that. But we need to return to true conservative principles, which I’m describing as the fundamental ideals on which our country was founded. Equality, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, with an emphasis on liberty in this case. This is what the Republican Party has gotten away from. This is why it has a problem with these groups. And if it were to embrace those causes truly, then I believe they would be able to appeal more.”

We moved on to electoral politics. Talking to McMullin and Finn about a path to victory feels slightly ridiculous; I know, and they know, and we all know they’re not going to win on November 8.

“It’s a fair question,” McMullin said. “I would just say that we have a range of goals. The most foundational one is to stand up for what we believe are true conservative principles in this election at a time when no one else is…That, at a very basic level, is what we’re doing.”

McMullin is on the ballot in just 11 states, and has qualified as a write-in candidate in 23 more. (Finn is not on all those lists. In a rather comic turn, McMullin last month listed a friend, Nathan Johnson, as a placeholder for the running mate spot until he made a final VP selection. Now, Johnson’s name, and not Finn’s, will be on some ballots.)

McMullin says that he’s on enough ballots “to give us access to 300 electoral votes.”

“Obviously it would be extremely difficult in a three-month presidential campaign to achieve 270,” he said. “So the next level of opportunity would be is if the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is extremely close, and we were to win a state or two, we could potentially block both of them and take the election to the House of Representatives.”

Can he win a state?

“I think we can, absolutely.”

Which one?

“Mountain West states, Utah and Idaho, where we’re polling stronger than we are elsewhere.”

That’s where the new Utah poll comes in. If it is correct — and Y2 Analytics doesn’t have a long record of polling — then McMullin, born in the state, a Mormon, and a graduate of Brigham Young University, might indeed have a chance in Utah.

But what then? Say McMullin wins Utah and its six electoral votes. What of it?

If Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins decisively, then Utah’s electoral votes won’t change the results. The only way Utah might matter is if the electoral contest is really, really close. Then, the McMullin strategy might come into play.

Imagine that Trump wins all of the Romney 2012 states, plus the three key swing states of Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. (That is a real feat of imagination, given the state of today’s polls.) If Trump does that, he would win the White House with 273 votes — a super-tight margin of victory. Hillary Clinton would have 265.

But say all that happened, except that Evan McMullin won Utah. That would reduce Trump to 267 electoral votes to Clinton’s 265. Neither would have the required 270, and the election would go to the House. That’s what McMullin meant when he said “we could potentially block both of them.”

It’s an extremely unlikely scenario. But even if it happened, why does McMullin think he could win? Why would a bunch of Republican members of the House hand the presidency to the guy who won six electoral votes over the guy who won 267?

“Well, we would compete,” McMullin said drily. “There are no guarantees, absolutely, but the goal is to block both of them, and if we got that far, then we would have a chance that otherwise would not be. So that’s worth the effort.”

McMullin explained that he is more closely aligned to most House Republicans on policy issues than Trump. “If House Republicans are truly interested in conservatism, then they should support who aligns with their ideals,” he said.

Yes, it’s a crazy plan, or just a great feat of hopefulness. And McMullin doesn’t sound like he really believes it will happen — if he truly did, people might worry about him. But the idea is that in this unique year of Donald Trump, an unknown candidate — and remember that McMullin was nowhere near the top of the NeverTrump wish list, after Romney, Ben Sasse, Tom Coburn, and even David French — might be the start of something new.

“A lot of people focus a lot on the electoral side of this,” McMullin told me as we finished up. “But we believe that the time has come for a new conservative movement in this country. And that is what we are building. And if we were not to stand up for conservatism when it mattered most in this election, when it was being abandoned, then what legitimacy would we have after the election to do that?”

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