March 26 (Bloomberg) -- Mitt Romney has a persisting Mormon problem. Less certain is whether this is limited to the Republican primaries or it’s a general-election worry, too.
“This nomination would be in the bag if it weren’t for the Mormon factor,” says John Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University who works on the intersection of religion and politics.
The exit polls from a plethora of primaries confirm that. Romney, a deeply devout leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gets clobbered among white evangelicals and those who believe the religious views of a would-be president matter a great deal. This has caused him to lose a few primaries and denied him decisive wins in others.
Sometimes this hostility is openly articulated. Last year, Robert Jeffress, an evangelical leader who is the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, called Mormonism a “cult,” and suggested Romney’s faith wouldn’t get him to heaven. It’s expressed by some rank-and-file conservatives, too. Scott Thomas, a Catholic and Rick Santorum supporter in Broomall, Pennsylvania, wondered if Romney, rather than President Barack Obama, “is the Antichrist.”
Usually this anti-Mormon bigotry is expressed more subtly, camouflaged by voicing doubts on other matters. Some pollsters say surveys don’t really capture the reservations; though they surface more in focus groups.
In political circles there is division over how religion might play in the fall campaign.
Many Republicans believe that anti-Mormon voting is concentrated among Christian evangelicals and that the distaste for Obama, among these voters, will trump those feelings. The anti-Obama venom is palpable. In Mississippi and Alabama, about half of Republican primary voters said the president, who is Christian, was a Muslim.
Jeffress, the anti-Mormon preacher, says given this choice he’d “hold my nose and vote for Romney.” Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a Republican, said: “There are 25,000 Southern Baptist preachers that’ll vote for a Mormon before they vote for Obama.”
Although they belong to one of the fastest-growing religions, Mormons still only account for about 2 percent of the electorate. Geer suggests, however, that they may turn out in large numbers to support their co-religionist in a general election, making a difference in swing states such as Nevada and Colorado.
Some Democrats say that is unlikely. Mormons turn out in high numbers anyway, and most are conservative Republicans; a poll by the Pew Research Center last year found that 74 percent of Mormons were Republicans. Thus, a Mormon presidential candidate gets little added value from his religion.
By contrast, in 1960, when John F. Kennedy was elected, Catholics constituted a voting bloc ten times larger than Mormons are today. A half century ago, a majority of Catholics were Democrats -- it’s about evenly divided now -- and there still were sufficient numbers of Republican-leaning Catholics who voted for Kennedy to offset the resistance of some Protestants.
Moreover, it isn’t just evangelicals who harbor reservations. In a national poll by Bloomberg News this month, a plurality of voters had an unfavorable view of the Mormon Church; they held positive attitudes about the Catholic Church by an almost 2-to-1 margin. The negativity about Mormons was expressed by a plurality of important swing voters, political independents and married women with children.
There’s also a question, the anti-Obama effect notwithstanding, of whether born-again Christians would enthusiastically rally behind Romney if he’s the nominee. Their reservations are clear. In a number of primaries, in the Midwest as well as the South, Santorum beat Romney by double digits among evangelicals, according to exit polls.
More striking was the behavior of those who say a candidate’s religious beliefs matter a great deal. Romney, a man of demonstrable religious involvement, should appeal to these voters. Instead, he was trounced by Santorum among those who say religion matters a great deal: 52 percent to 21 percent in Ohio; 51 percent to 17 percent in Tennessee; and 47 percent to 16 percent in Alabama. In last week’s primary in Illinois, which Romney carried easily, he was pummeled again among these voters.
The most plausible explanation is anti-Mormonism, which may transcend doctrinal and cultural attitudes. Southern Baptists and Mormons are competing for similar converts: “There is a high cost associated with mainstreaming your competition,” says Brett Benson, a political scientist at Vanderbilt who works with Geer on these issues.
There are three strains of political anti-Mormonism, says Benson, whose great-uncle, the late Ezra Taft Benson, was the head of the Mormon church: evangelicals, political left-wingers who dislike the conservatism of members, and a middle group, not that well-informed, that considers the religion “weird or strange.”
On the campaign trail, Romney occasionally talks about faith and has mentioned his experiences in France in the late 1960s when he was a young missionary; he never utters the word Mormon.
Yet his religion affects his campaign’s considerations and calculations. An example: Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a conservative Catholic, is on the short list to be Romney’s running mate. A recent revelation that Rubio, as a child, attended a Mormon church with his parents unsettles some Republican strategists, who worry that the tidbit would provide a feast for conspiracy buffs.
There is debate within the party over whether Romney should directly address his religion. He gave a well-received speech four years ago that didn’t change anything.
Benson cautions that Romney has a delicate balancing act. He could appeal to the middle group, uninformed about Mormonism, by stressing his Christian values. That would pose other difficulties. “If Romney says he’s a Christian, it drives Evangelicals away,” Benson says.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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