The elephant in the GOP? Mormonism.

Prejudice against Mormonism may be an unexpected factor in Romney’s electoral hopes.

Now that Mitt Romney has become the first Mormon to secure the Republican party’s nomination for president, he faces his toughest electoral challenge of all: how to overcome the undeniable anti-Mormonism among segments of the electorate that are critical to his chances in November.

Those who compare the politics of Romney’s Mormonism with John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism or Barack Obama’s race miss an important fundamental difference. Neither JFK nor Obama needed to win over those prejudiced against them to win the White House.

When Kennedy traveled to Houston to confront Baptist Ministers who were telling parishioners not to vote for a Catholic, he didn’t expect to change their minds. He had a different political purpose: making sure Catholics and liberals knew they needed to vote in record numbers to offset this unmovable opposition. Obama made the same basic political calculation on race: forget winning over hardened opponents and instead drive up turnout among supporters.

Romney faces a more challenging political problem: He can’t win without the many millions of evangelical conservative voters who have long had serious problems with the Mormon faith. For example, in the swing state of Virginia, nearly half of the GOP primary voters told pollsters they don’t consider a Mormon to be a Christian. Other polls show opposition to a Mormon in the White House at 300 percent higher than for a Catholic or an African-American.

Thus the GOP nominee’s dilemma: How to confront a prejudice that might cost him the White House when those biased against him are the very voters he needs to win the presidency?

Romney doesn’t have the JFK or Obama option; there aren’t enough Mormon voters to rally. Indeed, he tried the Kennedy approach when faced with evidence of prejudice in the 2008 GOP Iowa Caucuses. It didn’t work. Anti-Mormon prejudice is a potential fatal problem for Romney’s candidacy.

It is true the former governor prevailed in the primaries this year whereas he lost in 2008. But this outcome is not due to evangelical voters feeling more warmly toward Romney and his Mormonism. Romney won because this year he got those Republicans he had lost to Senator John McCain, who likewise was no favorite of “faith and family” GOP voters. The McCain voter skewed more moderate and secular by GOP primary standards. Four years ago, they saw Romney as too conservative. This year, he was the moderate in the race.

Had long-shot challenger Rick Santorum been able to get a slightly better turnout among his core “faith and family” voters in Michigan and Ohio, it is possible that Romney’s weakness with religious conservatives could have proved fatal in later primaries. But the GOP nominee managed to win those key states in squeakers. Given our momentum-driven nomination processes for president, these plurality vote victories drove the delegate count and media coverage to the point that Santorum had to drop out.

Romney won the GOP contest this time, but he remains the same loser with the anti-Mormon voter. Although the GOP presidential nominee openly alleges anti-conservative bias by what he sees as a liberal mainstream media, Romney is not calling out the same reporters and editors for failing to rail against documented anti-Mormon prejudice in the polls. Yet he and others in the GOP have been quick to criticize the same media for refusing to expose what they see as proven bias against evangelical conservative politicians.

Why the difference?

It is a case of political math. Based on the 2008 exit polls, Romney likely can’t win unless he does significantly better than John McCain among evangelical voters. Indeed, he may need to approach their huge support level for George W. Bush in 2004. So understandably, he fears that any talk of the Mormon issue could actually backfire.

“Faith and family” voter groups believe that President Obama’s decision to shift on same-sex marriage is a huge political gift for Romney among their constituencies. But despite this significant political development, the bottom line remains: Mitt Romney very well may lose votes because he is Mormon. That’s wrong. In the 1960s, many respected individuals and groups spoke eloquently and forcefully for fair treatment for a Catholic presidential nominee. A half-century later, those who fashion themselves as worthy heirs to this tradition have an obligation to do the same today for a Mormon presidential nominee whether they agree or disagree with his political philosophy.

Goldman is former chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia. Rozell is professor of public policy at George Mason University and the author of numerous studies on the intersection of religion and U.S. politics.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Cresto.

  • dspringe

    I believe it is too early to tell just how much Romney will have to overcome on the faith issue. As a candidate, he’s done a great job of distancing himself from the entire question so far. With people like Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas and Pat Robertson doing 180′s on their support of the Republican candidate, I believe many people will become confused. The big question is whether or not groups like exmormon.org are going to have much to say as the election draws closer. They could really pose a challenge to his credibility in the eyes of religionists.

  • r4cannon

    Please give conservative voters more credit. Romney’s problems in the primaries were not just because of his obvious fear of the Mormon problem. His liberal political record, scorched earth negative campaign, flip flops, and inability to appear sincere about his newly found conservative values really turned off voters. Most conservative votes he may get will be votes against Obama. The GOP should be concerned. As the history and beliefs of Mormonism are examined in the media, the more less like them (evangelicals) Romney will become.

  • di89

    After a while it will not be that different from evangelicals holding their theological noses to make common social cause with conservative Catholics. They will teach in church on Sunday that they’re going to hell for not accepting the party line on Jesus and salvation, but be their best friends on Monday when they want votes. And a good portion of the Mormons will put up with it in order to achieve their political goals, just as a lot of conservative Catholics put up with it.

    It will just take longer because Mormons are the new group on the block (in terms of numbers and visibility) whereas Catholics have been around in larger numbers for longer. If there were an influx of Mormons in the 1840′s in the numbers that Irish Catholics came in, then turn of the 20th century with Italians and Poles, we wouldn’t even be asking this question.

    However, I’d love to see someone brave enough to point out the theological parallel between Mormonism and Islam: a new, third testament of sorts being handed directly from God to one individual man, as an update or re-do of what was known as traditional Judeo-Christian faith, superseding centuries of lived experience. Wouldn’t that be fun to watch?

  • mkm12

    I’ve always found it disheartening that elections are reduced to studies re: which candidate is hated more and for which reason. In this case it seems that because Romney is going to be discriminated against more than Obama will be discriminated against, he has to fight harder. Who are the racist anti-Mormons going to vote for?

    If Obama can practice Christianity yet believe in same-sex marriage, don’t you think Romney can practice Mormonism but operate in certain ways that aren’t 100% Mormon? Why would Romney’s ties to Mormonism make him a less viable candidate among Christians than Obama in his support for same-sex marriage? Campaigns need to stop focusing on who is supporting what because x amount of people are the majority and it seems like the right thing to do to win. Let’s focus on the economy here, which is STAMMERING and has increased by 5 TRILLION dollars since Obama has taken office.

    I have to ask: if anti-Mormonism is THAT detrimental, why wouldn’t Harry Reid cause the Obama campaign to lose the same amount of votes? He’s Mormon, too ya know.

  • knikknakz

    On the one hand, it is absolutely imperative that the Republican’s clinch the Conservative Christian right to win the White House. Frankly, they’ve backed themselves into that corner so now they have to figure out how to make the Romney candidacy as appealing as possible. Luckily, with the Romney nomination set, he’s got months to drum up a Vice President candidate that might be able to placate his base enough to bring them to the polls. Honestly, it’s probably his best shot if his numbers among the religious base are really that bad. I say he’ll probably go with a Bob McDonnell or a Marco Rubio to appeal to the Christian base and then hope for the best.

  • mauryand19th

    It is unclear that Mr. Romney’s religion will play such a big role as suggested. For those who want President Obama out, he’s the only option. Evangelical Christians are likely to hold their nose and vote for him. And based on the current focus, it appears Mr. Romney is doing well in keeping the spotlight on the main battleground, the economy, even if his only recourse is to make up information about the Obama record. Note his current silence on the drop in gas prices after spending time pillorying the president for driving them up.
    I would suggest that Mr. Romney’s character flaws, not his religion, could end up as the elephant. HIs willingness to lie and change positions to win may be more important to voters in the long run than his faith.

  • jsdt

    While Romney has largely distanced himself from the Mormonism conversation, the time to talk about it is now. For those Americans with little to no knowledge of the faith, Romney has the opportunity to shape the discussion, answer the difficult questions and try to dispel America’s preconceived ideas about Mormonism, which may prove fatal on election day if gone unanswered. Romney needs to “own” his religion and start talking. The sooner we discuss it and get it over with, the sooner Romney can refocus his campaign and fine tune his platform. Romney can potentially court the Christian conservative vote with a carefully selected VP, as I don’t feel the important voting block is going to jump ship based on religion alone.

  • RickH4

    Mormons I know have a big appreciation for people who advocate fair treatment of Mormons, Muslims, Jews, and other religious minorities in the US. Mormons don’t want assimilation or to be “mainstream” so much as to be aknowledged and respected as people.

  • ccnl1

    Putting the kibosh/”google” on religion to include Mormonism:

    • There was probably no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • There was probably no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    prob•a•bly
    Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  • WmarkW

    Very few anti-Mormons are going to vote for Obama.

    If this was a snoozer of an election marked by high apathy, that might be a problem. But this is going to be one of the most energized electorates in decades, and will be decided by real issues, as it should.

  • louise191

    Romney’s LDS identity, thus far, has not been much of an issue in the campaign. It didn’t surface in a very toxic primary, and the White House has thus far preferred to attack him on the Bain issue. But the authors are right, and would add to Mormonism gay marriage as the two “sleeper” issues of the campaign. Here’s what is boils down to: if Obama is 3 to 5 up in all the polls, he and his forces won’t raise the religion issue. But if it tightens to within the margin of error, get ready.

  • bytebear

    I disagree. It’s not Romney’s responsibility to explain Mormonism any more than it is for John Kerry to explain Catholicism, or Joe Lieberman to explain Judaism. If you want to know what Mormons believe, go to their website (lds.org) or read their literature – they have their own publishing house and bookstore (deseretbook.com). Or go to their church, or speak to their General Authorities. BBC just did a podcast from Salt Lake City with a panel of church leaders and BYU professors. Simply put, there are plenty of places to go without focusing on Romney.

  • BlondeMomma

    I’m confused at why the author states in his article that Kennedy’s Catholisiscm and Romney’s LDS faith are not comparable. Kennedy absolutely DID have to overcome critisicim and those who were opposed to Catholisicm to win the Presidency. At that time, there was a lot more anti-Catholic feeling than now.
    It seems to me that this author, Paul Goldman, as the former Virginia democratic party chair and as a democrat, has ulterior motives to influence the readers and their votes this fall.
    This is not reporting news… this is editorialism, and not appreciated.
    Journalism is not looking for facts to support your opinion; Journalism is looking at the facts, and talking with everyone involved, and drawing a conclusion. Any high school journalism student will agree.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    …and ensure that homosexuals are not acknowledged or respected as people.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    Considering every voter knows the ins and outs of those far older and better established monotheisms that you mentioned, I would agree with the original poster that the onus should be on Romney to help acquaint the American people with his cosmological beliefs. I would like to hear about the planet he will inherit as a god after death. I would like to hear about how the first man and woman were born in Jackson County, MO. I would like to hear about how Native Americans are the descendants of a lost tribe of Israel. I mean, if mormonism is the one true faith, complete transparency should only draw more voters to Romney’s constituency, right?

  • XVIIHailSkins

    I won’t argue with you about the questionable objectivity of the article’s authors (although show me a proponent of Mormonism that has ever even feigned objectivity when the faith is under discussion). I will agree with them, however, that the comparison to Kennedy’s election does not hold up. In short, this is because Catholicism has been around for nearly 2000 years now, and no mildly educated person could be entirely ignorant as to what the Catholic faith entails. On the other hand, Mormonism is scarcely 200 years old, and I’m sorry to put it so bluntly but the average thinking person can’t help but feel a bit uneasy upon looking into some of the teachings of this particular sect.

    Looking past the church’s unseemly history of racism, polygamy, homophobia, and iron-curtain secrecy, wouldn’t you agree that an outsider might be a bit leery of a church that teaches things that are demonstrably untrue, like the idea that native Americans are descendants of Israelis, or that the cradle of human life is in Jackson County, MO? This type of anti-historical doctrine can be very off-putting to the average voter, and while the mainstream monotheisms are really no better, people are simply more familiar with them and their adherents. I’m not saying it’s fair, I’m just saying people are suspicious of Romney because of the actual doctrine of his faith, and not the clerical hierarchy as they were with Kennedy.

  • Ronson McPhossenberry

    PLEASE CIRCLE THE RATIONAL VOTER.
    PLEASE DRAW A SQUARE AROUND THE IRRATIONAL VOTER(S).
    FOR INDEPENDENT VOTERS, PLEASE STAY ON THE LINE…

    Voter 1

    “Even though I am a conservative, I will not vote for a Mormon Republican candidate for president. I will never for a Democrat because I am a conservative. Therefore, I will not vote this November.”

    Voter 2

    “I’d vote for a Mormon Republican candidate for president. I’m a conservative and always vote Republican. Democrats are an abomination.”

    Voter 3

    “I’m an independent voter, a reader of polls and a consumer of many good newspapers. I’m a big fan of the Joe morning show on something-NBC. Starbucks. I like Romney. I also like Obama. I like Mormons. A butterfly. Obama hasn’t said anything about Mormons. I probably won’t vote. A butterfly.”

    Voter 4

    “I’m a Democrat and would vote for a spotted mule if s/he were on the ticket (you’re welcome!). I will not vote for a Republican in the upcoming election, but would certainly pin a picture of a handsome Mormon on the body of a spotted mule on Pinterest (I just did that!). If a pollster ever asked, I would entertain the notion of voting for an Independent Mormon candidate. Though now I wonder: if a conservative won’t vote for a Mormon Republican, why should I fall into the voting trap? No, of course I’ll vote. And do you want to know why? It’s because I know what conservative evangelicals are thinking, and it’s wrong!

  • AgentFoxMulder

    Mormon, Mormon, Mormon. Guess what everyone…the Washington Post wants us all to know that Mitt Romney is, wait for it, a MORMON!

    I am an evangelical Christian. Obviously, I do not agree with what Mormon’s believe. Then again, I do not agree with a LOT of positions that have been held by our previous presidents (including those for whom I’ve voted).

    Still, it is good to see a DEMOCRAT argue that a Mormon republican should be given a chance (by the way evangelicals, he wants you know that Romney is a Mormon). Three cheers for bipartisanship!

  • AgentFoxMulder

    Oh, and I do plan to vote, by the way.

  • nayajja

    This article appears disingenuous and written as a cynical political ploy.

    Written by a “former chair of the democratic party in Virginia,” it tries to raise doubts about Romney because of his Mormonism, hyperbolically calling it “his toughest electoral challenge of all.”

    Seems to me the writer is doing his level best to make it Romney’s toughest electoral challenge, at the same time sanctimoniously claiming that its wrong that Romney might lose votes because he is a Mormon.

  • bytebear

    Funny how when talking about myth (and all religion is myth) that Mormons get beat over the head over their “demonstrably untrue” beliefs. Funny, I never recall any Christian candidate ever being berated for believing in unicorns (yes, it’s in the Bible, people). Singling out Mormonism is bigortry, plain and simple.

  • bytebear

    I am a homosexual, and I have very been respected by my Mormon friends and family.

  • bytebear

    Do you also berate Christian candidates on their belief in unicors? Catholics for their belief in canibalism, or Jews for wearing magic beanies? But if you want a serious look at the belief in Theosis then Google it, or better yet, read the Bible.

    be holy: for I … am holy, Lev. 19:2 (1 Pet. 1:16).
    Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father, Matt. 5:48 (3 Ne. 12:48).
    Is it not written in your law … Ye are gods, John 10:34 (Ps. 82:1–8)
    we are the offspring of God, Acts 17:29
    heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ, Rom. 8:17
    changed into the same image from glory to glory, 2 Cor. 3:18
    if a son, then an heir of God through Christ, Gal. 4:7
    Till we all come … unto a perfect man, Eph. 4:13
    when he shall appear, we shall be like him, 1 Jn. 3:2
    him that overcometh will … sit with me in my throne, Rev. 3:21

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