Can a Mormon Become President?

By David Paul Kuhn - June 6, 2011

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These religious fissures are seen across the electorate. One-third of evangelical Democrats said they had an unfavorable view of the LDS church, while a fifth of non-evangelical Christian Democrats agreed. About one-third of all Republicans who attend religious services at least once a week had an unfavorable view of the LDS church. Among less religious Republicans, a fifth disapproved of Mormonism.

But the opposition also, and always, matters in presidential politics. The personable Baptist preacher is not in the race this time. That mitigates Romney and Huntsman's so-called evangelical problem. There is not one candidate, for now, that unites social conservatives.

Romney, in particular, could win enough social conservatives to secure the nomination. Firstly, a majority of white evangelicals say it does not matter if a candidate is Mormon. In 2009, about six in 10 GOP evangelicals said they viewed the LDS church favorably or abstained from the question (a reasonable response, when asked to rate an entire religion).

Romney also won as many or more evangelicals as McCain did in at least seven primary contests: New Hampshire, Florida, California, Connecticut, Delaware and Georgia as well as Iowa. In other words, Romney had an evangelical problem -- but so did some non-Mormon candidates, including the eventual GOP nominee.

According to Gallup polling in May, Romney is narrowly winning social conservative voters. Why? The answer provides a more informative window into Romney's strengths and weaknesses.

Romney currently leads among college-educated Republicans. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin leads among working-class Republicans. Palin may not run. But she is potentially a magnet for social-conservative support. Palin is ahead of Romney, 16 to 14 percent, among highly religious working-class Republicans. Romney, however, is the overwhelming favorite of college educated weekly churchgoers, with 29 percent support; tied for second, at 8 percent, are Palin and former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

This is another way to understand Romney's problems. He struggles to bridge the old fissure between Rockefeller and Goldwater Republicans, between the old Republican Northeast establishment and the culturally populist party that moved southwest and eventually won tides of working-class Democrats to its fold.

Making Too Much of the Mormon Issue?

In 1928, Al Smith became the first Catholic to win a major party's presidential nomination. He was also an urban pol who opposed prohibition. The 1920s economy was still roaring. What factor lost Smith Southern, rural and social-conservative votes? All of the above. But some still explained Smith's loss solely through the religious lens.

In 2008, many analysts made a similar mistake with Obama. They fixated on the impact of his race, while broadly ignoring the left-leaning northern, urbane, professorial Obama -- attributes that undermined Democrats from Adlai Stevenson to John Kerry.
Romney is a former Massachusetts' governor who defended abortion rights. He currently defends a health care policy anathema to conservatives. And he personifies the bygone white-shoe GOP establishment. If Romney were an Anglican, there would still be a gantlet between him and the presidency. This is no less true for Huntsman, a moderate who served as Obama's ambassador to China.

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David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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