Mormon voters wary of too much public support for Romney

Correction: An earlier version of this articleincorrectly described the Mormon church’s stance on political involvement. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints itself has a policy of strict neutrality when it comes to political candidates, but it encourages its members to vote and be politically active. This version has been corrected.

February 26, 2012

Among the customers browsing the light-infused Jesus paintings and spiritually tinged volumes of a Mormon bookstore here, you will find some of Mitt Romney’s most passionate supporters. But don’t expect them to go starting a “Mormons for Mitt” group anytime soon.

Mormons, one of Romney’s most loyal voting blocs, are often quiet about their support. One reason for the reticence, even though the Mormon church encourages its members to vote and be politically active, is the danger they see in associating Romney too closely with his faith.

Many say they are convinced that suspicion about their little-known religion has at least partially prevented him from cementing his front-runner status. And they neither want to draw negative attention to their faith or hurt his chances for the presidency.

“Romney seems to have a kind of ceiling, and I think it’s from a fear that he might be too tied to the church,” said Walt Tranmer, 71, as he left the bookstore on a recent morning. “It’s too bad that kind of animosity still exists.”

On Tuesday, when Arizona Republicans hold their presidential primary, Mormons are expected to turn out in large numbers and give Romney an edge.

In 2008, Mormons made up about 11 percent of the Republican primary electorate, according to exit polls. Though they are not a large group nationally — about 2 percent of the U.S. population — they are overwhelmingly conservative and are more likely to vote than other groups.

Their influence helped push the former Massachusetts governor to a major victory earlier this month in Nevada, another state with a large number of Mormon voters. About 95 percent of the Mormon voters in that state’s GOP caucus backed Romney, exit polls show.

Several other Western states also have sizable Mormon populations, including Idaho and Utah, the seat of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (LDS) as it is formally known.

Mormon voters say they are keenly aware that Romney’s association with the church, could be a hindrance, especially as he tries to win over evangelical voters, some of whom do not accept that Mormons are Christians.

“I think members know that there’s enough mistrust out there that they’re a little concerned to start up a group called Mormons for Mitt,” said Scott Gordon, founder of ­MormonVoices.org, a nonprofit that addresses misconceptions about Mormonism.

But he added: “When you run into people in church they say, ‘Gee, did you see how Mitt did?’ He definitely has a cheering section.”

While “LDS for Ron Paul” groups have sprouted up for the Texas congressman, no such organizations exist for Romney. The church itself has aggressively asserted its neutrality in the race and even has taken pains to make sure its “I’m a Mormon” billboards were not erected in early-primary states, a church spokesman said.

Romney himself has been circumspect about his religion this year. During his first run for president four years ago, he made a sweeping speech about his faith, hoping to allay concerns over it. This year he has emphasized that Jesus Christ is his “personal savior” and said more generically that he is proud of his “faith.”

He occasionally talks about his time as a missionary and lay leader, and raised it obliquely in connection with the Obama administration’s short-lived decision earlier this year to require some religious institutions to cover contraception as part of their health insurance plans.

“I can assure you, as someone who has understood very personally the significance of religious tolerance and religious freedom . . . I will make sure we never again attack religious liberty in the United States of America,” he said during a campaign appearance near Detroit on Tuesday.

The Romney campaign, whose officials declined to comment for this article, have made no public effort to organize Mormon voters. After the Nevada caucus, they were quick to note that Romney would have won even without the Mormon presence.

Some Mormon voters wonder whether Romney could present a more human side if he spoke about his experiences in the church — when as a lay leader he provided marital and financial counseling and helped guide people out of addiction.

“He doesn’t talk about it very much, and it really bugs me about him,” said Susan Wilcox, 62, a teacher in Utah. She said she had a message for the man she thinks would be a superb president: “Stop the bashing of Obama and tell them what a great man you are.”

But others are more likely to cite suspicions toward their faith, and not just among evangelicals. They invariably note the moment last year when the Rev. Robert Jeffress, the head of a Texas megachurch, stood up at a conservative conference and called Mormonism a cult. (Jeffress has since said he will “hold his nose” and vote for Romney.)

Among Mormon voters, Romney is highly popular — viewed favorably by 86 percent overall, and about one in three of those who are Democratic or Democratic-leaning, according to a January survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Some of his close advisers are Mormon, including finance chair Spencer Zwick, as are several top donors. Two companies with ties to prominent Mormon Steven Lund contributed a combined $2 million to Restore Our Future, a super PAC backing Romney. Hotel magnate J.W. Marriott and his brother, Richard Marriott, each contributed $750,000.

Melaleuca, an Idaho-based wellness company, contributed $1 million to the super PAC, and chief executive Frank VanderSloot co-hosted a fundraiser for Romney in Idaho last week. VanderSloot, a longtime supporter, said their common faith does not play a role in his support for Romney.

“I suspect for some people it would,” said VanderSloot. “For me, it’s a matter of somebody who shares my values, and there are a lot of people outside of the faith who share my values and people inside the faith who don’t.”

Voters expressed a similar sentiment outside the Mesa bookstore. Romney’s faith may have caused them to trust his morals or follow his career closely, they said. But his faith was not the only factor. Many noted they were disinclined to support another Mormon, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

“We love Mitt,” said Wilma LeSueur, 85, a Mormon whose family has lived in Arizona for generations. But with regards to Reid, she said jokingly, “I’m not sure how they let him keep his membership card.”

Staff writers Dan Eggen and T.W. Farnam in Washington contributed to this report.

Sandhya Somashekhar is a health reporter for the Washington Post.
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