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Can a Mormon Become President?

By David Paul Kuhn - June 6, 2011

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Yet we've read and heard simplistic political obituaries. "No Mormons Need Apply," read an American Spectator headline in February 2008. "It now seems undeniable that religion played the key role in Mitt Romney's failure to win the Republican nomination or, for that matter, to finish a close second," the writer concluded.

Romney's "key" problem in 2008 was larger than his faith. As the primary began, he was not even the clear challenger among Republicans willing to back a Mormon candidate. Twenty-seven percent of Republicans, including right-leaning independents, were "less enthusiastic" about Romney's candidacy because he was a Mormon, according to a mid-January 2008 ABC-Post poll. Romney won almost no support among them. These Republicans sided with McCain first and, at a distant second, Huckabee. Yet two-thirds of Republicans who said Romney's Mormonism made no difference favored McCain most; there was a three-way tie for second between Romney, Huckabee and Giuliani among these Republicans.

There is scant data that allows clean comparisons between Romney's problems. The Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll asked in March 2007 whether it mattered that Romney "changed his stance on abortion from accepting legal abortion to favoring a ban except in cases of incest, rape, and to save the life of the mother." Thirty-five percent of Republicans and right-leaning independents said the shift gave them "some reservations" or made them "very uncomfortable." A slightly larger share of Republicans said the same for Mormonism in that poll and a slightly smaller share said the same for Mormonism in a late 2007 poll. In general, Mormonism and the abortion appeared to be comparable factors.

Yet there is evidence that Mormonism was actually the lesser problem. Romney led Iowa late into 2007. Yet even then he shouldered telling vulnerabilities. Half of likely GOP caucus participants who then favored another candidate said a "major factor" was that Romney "shifted his positions on issues like abortion." By comparison, only one-fifth of Republicans supporting another candidate citied Romney's Mormonism as a "major factor"; 23 percent said Mormonism was a "minor factor" compared to 32 percent who said Romney's shifting views were a "minor factor," according to an October 2007 Des Moines Register poll.

Romney's problem was always larger than any one issue. The son's failing was the father's. One 1967 Time magazine headline captured the matter: "The Two Romneys." Mitt Romney's core problem in 2008 was, namely, that too many Republicans didn't think he had one -- that is, a core. An ABC-Post national survey, at about the same time as the Iowa poll, found that only 13 percent of Republicans said Romney "best reflects the core values of the Republican Party." The same share said he was the "most honest" candidate. Twice as many said McCain or Giuliani were the "most honest" candidate. CNN-Opinion Research polling captured the same trend. Romney had that lethal strain of presidential character issues: waffle-itis. That perception has long felled presidential contenders (think Hubert Humphrey or John Kerry).

This is perhaps why, in 2011, Romney refuses to oppose the health care overhaul that he once passed. He dare not add to the perception he's a political weather vane.

Looking ahead, Romney's health care reform, as governor of Massachusetts, appears to be a far greater albatross than his faith. Six in 10 Republican voters nationally and in Iowa say they are unwilling to vote for someone who supported a bill at the state level mandating that people have health insurance, according to Public Policy Polling. That dwarfs the share who say the same about Mormonism.

Yet a chorus of analysts argue otherwise. Liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias wrote this spring that "Mitt Romney's RomneyCare problem may be surmountable, his additional Mormon problem may not be." Yglesias based that assertion partly on the assertions of an academic paper, also featured in Politico.

An Australian academic studied the same 2007 Pew data studied here and determined: "General attitudes toward Mormons are the mostimportant factor in how respondents evaluate Mitt Romney, even more so than the highly relevant factors of party identification and ideology." But there are statistical issues with that conclusion. He measured "attitudes toward Mormons" using a different scale than "party identification." That likely artificially exaggerated his finding. Party identification also captures many of the same voters as ideology, which decreased the effect of those factors when compared to perceptions of Mormons.

The most instructive academic study comes from three political scientists who specialize in religion -- Notre Dame's David Campbell, University of Akron's John Green and Brigham Young University's J. Quin Monson. Their early 2008 survey -- the paper's publication is pending -- first provided a basic biography of the candidates and asked respondents whether that made them more or less likely to vote for them. They subsequently highlighted Romney's religiosity with and without noting his Mormon faith. About three in 10 randomly sampled adults said they were less likely to vote for Romney upon learning he is a Mormon.

The LDS church has always had a tense relationship with the broader population. Mormons began to reform their image at the close of the 19th century. Polygamy was abandoned. Utah became a state six years later. In ensuing decades, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir served as an ambassador to American culture.

Modern American culture still, however, tolerates a measure of Mormon bashing. Today, the hit Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon" -- the one Newsweek riffed off of -- satirizes the church's origin and biblical text. The show's creators have characterized it as an "atheists' love letter to religion" and the Mormon missionaries in it are depicted as optimistic and sincere. But imagine the uproar if there was a similar production mocking the Jewish or Islamic biblical texts.

Mormon candidates will not, however, simply rise and fall with these views. Mormonism is no small matter. But much else also matters in the making of an American president.

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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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