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.