Why Mitt Romney’s ‘Mormon Question’ doesn’t matter (as much) in 2012

at 03:52 PM ET, 10/10/2011

Yet again, we are seeing Mitt Romney ’s Mormon religion pique the interest of the political world.

The culprit this time: Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress, a Rick Perry supporter who recently described the Mormon religion as a “cult,” and isn’t backing off that claim in subsequent interviews.

But while the “Mormon Question” was a big one in the 2008 presidential race, there’s plenty of reason to believe its impact has somewhat lessened four years later, as Romney becomes more of a known quantity to voters.

First, polling shows that despite Romney’s increased prominence in the GOP primary, voters haven’t increased their hesitancy to vote for a Mormon. And indeed, some polling shows resistance to a Mormon candidate dropping.

And second, running for president for the second time often softens the edges of a controversial issue, or makes unfamiliar characteristics more familiar. Because Romney’s Mormonism was already examined at length in the 2008 campaign, it’s not as newsworthy this time around, and thus not as attractive a wedge issue as, say, the former Massachusetts governor’s health care bill.

This is where things currently stand:

Polling conducted for the Washington Post and ABC News, Gallup, and the Pew Research Center in recent months has shown between 20 and 25 percent of Americans say they either won’t vote for a Mormon or would be less likely to vote for one.

While Gallup and Pew showed similar numbers four years ago, the Post poll showed a significant decline in those who say they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon, from 36 percent of all voters in December 2006 to 20 percent in June of this year.

What’s more, Republicans are generally more accepting of a Mormon candidate than Democrats, with 23 percent saying it makes them less likely to vote for that candidate in a Pew survey from May. Independents are even more open, with 20 percent saying it would make them less likely to support a Mormon candidate.

Gallup in June showed 18 percent of Republicans and 19 percent of independents calling Mormonism a deal-breaker.

The numbers are a little less encouraging for Romney when you look at Republican-leaning white evangelical Protestants – i.e. a big chunk of the GOP caucus vote in Iowa. Post polling shows 27 percent of that vote say they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon, but that number is down from 44 percent in December 2006.

Romney’s previous presidential run has a lot to do with his improved performance. There’s a reason most of the recent GOP presidential nominees have run and lost at least once prior to winning the GOP nomination: they have been vetted on things that tend to make GOP primary voters even a little bit uncomfortable.

Post polling shows the Mormon question became less and less of an issue as the 2008 campaign continued. Indeed, current numbers are essentially the same as they were at the tail end of the 2007 campaign, when Post polling showed voters were already coming around to the idea of a Mormon president.

None of this is to say, of course, that his religion doesn’t remain a liability for Romney. The fact that polling shows one in five voters think the Mormon Question is a legitimate one does restrict the universe of voters that Romney can win in both the primary and the general elections.

But other polling has shown people opening up to the idea of voting for Romney.

In February 2007, Pew showed 50 percent of voters who said there was “no chance” they would vote for Romney, while another 14 percent offered no response; today those numbers are down to 44 percent and 5 percent, respectively. More than half – 51 percent – of all voters say there is either “good chance” or “some chance” they would vote for Romney.

And perhaps most illustrative, even 31 percent of those who said they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate say there is at least a chance that they would vote for Romney.

Counted in that group is Jeffress, who said Sunday that he would still vote for Romney – despite the fact that he believes Mormonism is a “cult” – in a matchup with Obama.

 
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