« Patriotic Video of the Day | The RCP Blog Home Page | 'You're a Traitor, Joe!' »

Romney's 37% Problem

On Monday The Los Angeles Times released the third batch of results from its most recent poll, dealing with religion and politics. The number with the most significance for 2008 isn't very shocking: "Thirty-seven percent of those questioned said they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate."

The article runs down the standard list of potential political problems created by Mitt Romney's faith, but then turns to Mike Murphy for the pro-Romney spin:

Republican political consultant Mike Murphy, who advised Romney in his gubernatorial bid, said any discussion about Romney's religion as a potential obstacle to the presidency was premature, and probably misplaced. Murphy also has counseled the Massachusetts governor as he tests the waters for the 2008 presidential race.

"I think the poll is wrong," Murphy said. "I think this is a classic example of how with polling data, you can find something that is not predictive at all."

Besides, Murphy said, "When he ran for governor of Massachusetts, everybody said there was no way a Mormon would win in one of the most Catholic states in America. I've been to this movie before."

With all due respect, winning in Massachusetts is a far cry from winning the Republican presidential primary - as Murphy well knows. In addition to the LA Times poll, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that Romney's religion is going to be anywhere from a moderate to severe handicap, especially in the South (see Robert Novak and Amy Sullivan). And Ross Douthat provides a nimble description of why Romney's problem isn't just confined to the GOP primary:

So the Republican primaries would be tough on Romney, and he would be a ripe target for an enterprising Rove wannabe with a taste for dirty campaigns. A few flyers about polygamy in South Carolinian mailboxes, or some push-poll telephone calls about the weirdness of the Book of Mormon in the Catholic Midwest . . . well, you get the idea. And things wouldn't get any easier in the general election, when the media would suddenly discover all sorts of juicy details about Joseph Smith's faith that are just crying out for a Time cover story, or a 60 Minutes special. If you think that journalists have had a field day with George W. Bush's fairly banal brand of evangelical Christianity, well, you ain't seen nuthin' yet.

Romney knows he has to deal with the issue of his religion, and he's already been addressing the subject in small groups in places like Iowa - with some success, according to David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register. Romney's pitch to evangelicals boils down to the following: "The great majority of Americans want a person of faith to be their leader. They recognize there are going to be differences in doctrines, but they want to see what the values are the person has as a leader."

But there's a problem with this approach, as Adam Reilly pointed out in Slate not too long ago. By positioning himself as a social conservative and wooing evangelicals this way, Romney forecloses the option of defusing the faith issue with a JFK-style pronouncement that it won't affect his politics. Romney is trying to win over voters who explicitly want a candidate's faith to be part of what drives their policy decision-making, so he is inevitably going to have to deal with some hard questions about his religion.

Romney's plan is to try and minimize any detailed discussion about the peculiarities of his faith and also try to minimize the extent to which the issue will hurt him in the South by winning early contests. Part of this strategy relies on Michigan moving up the date of its primary to coincide with South Carolina and also possibly closing it to independents, giving Romney a potentially decisive boost against McCain. (For some heavy detail on the McCain-Romney battle in Michigan see Mark Hemmingway in the current issue of the Weekly Standard).

Though I remain skeptical of Romney's chances I will say this: he's very impressive in person and can be very persuasive. If anyone has a chance of clearing the Mormon hurdle, Romney is as good a bet as you're likely to find.