There are two disclaimers related to Mitt Romney’s campaign for president that should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt: the claim by leaders of the “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign that it has no connection whatsoever to the presence of two Mormon candidates in the GOP primary race, and the recent assertion by Pat Robertson of the 700 Club, after singling out Romney both for his politics and as “an outstanding Christian,” that he is not endorsing any candidate.
The “I’m a Mormon Campaign” is straightforward: It’s a general public relations campaign to familiarize Americans with Mormons. Running in nine major media markets last year and recently re-launched in 12, the campaign points people to an official LDS Web site, which contains profiles of a diverse set of “real people.” Under the headline “Meet Mormons: Discover Mormons who share your personal experience,” you can search for Mormons with particular characteristics, such as gender, age ethnicity, and even “previous religion.” While the campaign and the Web site mention neither Mitt Romney nor Jon Huntsman, as far as it is successful, it will function to diminish the “otherness” factor for the two Mormons most in the national spotlight this year.
Robertson’s non-endorsement of Romney, for those who have ears to hear, trumpets two critical things to the Republican evangelical base: affinity and electability. At first glance, Robertson’s comments may seem like faint praise for a candidate who is currently the front-runner for the GOP nomination, and for one who unsuccessfully lobbied Robertson for an endorsement in 2008. But it could make an enormous difference for Romney, not only when he addresses the annual “Values Voter Summit” this weekend, but also on the longer campaign trail.
Most critically, by pronouncing Romney part of the Christian fold, Robertson signals that Romney’s faith is not so different from that of the white evangelical Protestants who form a strong core of the Republican base. The declaration that Romney is an “outstanding Christian” is a dramatic upgrade from Robertson’s more tepid comments in the last presidential campaign. In 2007, Robertson dubbed Romney an “outstanding American,” while his Christian Broadcasting Network Web site also declared-under the heading “How Do I Recognize a Cult?”-that “when it comes to spiritual matters, the Mormons are far from the truth.”
This Christian embrace should be a godsend for Romney, given that Americans generally want president’s with strong religious values, and that a significant portion of the electorate still holds reservations about the Mormon faith. In PRRI’s July PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey, nearly four-in-10 Americans (43 percent) perceived that Romney’s religious beliefs were different than their own. And in August, PRRI found that four-in-10 (41 percent) Americans say they do not consider the Mormon faith to be a Christian religion. Notably, among white evangelical Protestants, the heart of Robertson’s audience, that number rises to nearly six-in-10 (57 percent).
Second, Robertson’s sanctioning of Romney’s politics and faith signal faith in Romney’s electability. Robertson has often been more pragmatic than ideological in his past endorsements, eschewing for example Mike Huckabee, a Baptist pastor, in the 2008. Instead, Robertson generated bemused backlash from fellow conservatives who struggled to understand why the longtime religious right leader would back Rudy Giuliani, a twice-divorced Catholic former New York mayor who backed abortion and gay rights. But Robertson liked Giuliani’s conservative politics--particularly his commitment to appoint conservative judges and to protect Americans “from the blood lust of Islamic terrorists”--and he thought he could win.
Romney’s reception at this weekend’s “Values Voter Summit” will serve as a bellwether for how widely Robertson’s sentiments are shared. Romney will be going toe to toe with Rick Perry, who has, as I wrote last week, openly used sectarian rhetoric to appeal to white evangelical Protestants by emphasizing his own religious faith. Romney, on the other hand, has a much knottier challenge: convincing GOP primary voters that he is sufficiently conservative, while emphasizing that he shares their religious values. Given this challenge, notwithstanding the fact that Robertson’s star has fallen over the last decade, his non-endorsement could be exactly the kind of sanction for which Romney is looking.
Editor’s note: This post has been updated.