In both studies people were given information about Romney and his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, then asked whether they would be more or less likely to vote for him.
The first study, produced by three prominent political scientists, including two Mormons, finds that Romney’s religion hampered his 2008 presidential run, and may do so again this year.
But a second, conducted by the Washington-based nonpartisan Brookings Institution, calls such concerns “overblown” and suggests that Romney’s Mormonism may actually help him court conservative voters.
So what gives?
This much seems clear: Since 1967, nearly one in five Americans have consistently told Gallup pollsters that they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate.
Meanwhile, more Americans are becoming aware of Romney’s religion: 48 percent know that he’s a Mormon, up from 39 percent last November, according to the Pew Research Center.
Relentless media attention — exploring everything from Mormon undergarments to the church’s polygamist past — has introduced Romney’s faith to the wider public. The spotlight will only intensify now that Romney has secured the GOP nomination.
But few Americans are personally well-acquainted with a Mormon, according political scientists David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame, John Green of the University of Akron and J. Quin Monson of Brigham Young University. Just 14 percent of Americans have a Mormon family member or close friend.
That could present obstacles for Romney, the political scientists argue in their paper, “The Stained Glass Ceiling: Social Contact and Mitt Romney’s’Religion Problem.’”
Mormons are no longer persecuted, as they were during the late 1800s, but their beliefs and proselytizing remain unpopular among many Americans, the scholars say. In addition, Mormons are geographically isolated in western states and socially insular, often marrying and making friends within the church.
In other words, they have built few social “bridges” to non-Mormons, with consequences for Romney’s campaign.
People who know a Mormon well were less likely to be dissuaded from supporting Romney by hearing negative information about his church, the scholars found. People with no personal exposure to Mormons (46 percent) were swayed by both positive and negative facts about the faith. And people who know a Mormon only in passing (40 percent) were more likely to be influenced by negative than positive depictions of the faith.
“It’s akin to having a Mormon colleague at work, and all you know about him is that he doesn’t go to happy hour after work with the rest of the office, and you think that’s kind of odd,” Monson said. When fed a negative nugget of information about Mormonism, it confirms a sense that something is amiss about Romney, said Monson, a Latter-day Saint himself.