If you had to sum up Mitt Romney's planned third bid for president in 2016 in a single slogan (and why wouldn't you?), it would be: Mitt Romney 3.0 -- now with more Mormon! Here's The Washington Post's Phil Rucker on that point:
If he runs again in 2016, Romney is determined to rebrand himself as authentic, warts and all, and central to that mission is making public what for so long he kept private. He rarely discussed his religious beliefs and practices in his failed 2008 and 2012 races, often confronting suspicion and bigotry with silence as his political consultants urged him to play down his Mormonism.
Now, Romney speaks openly about his service as a lay pastor in the Mormon Church, recites Scripture to audiences, muses about salvation and the prophet, urges students to marry young and “ have a quiver full of kids,” and even cracks jokes about Joseph Smith’s polygamy.
I get Romney's decision. I was one of the people who thought he should talk more about his faith in the 2012 general election campaign as a way to counter the perception being pushed by the Obama campaign that he was a flip-flopping plutocrat with no core beliefs. His Mormon faith has always been central to Romney's private persona so if the goal is to run the "real Romney" this time, then it's the right move.
That said, there's plenty of reasons to believe that a forward-facing of his Mormonism might have less-than-ideal political consequences for Romney -- particularly among a Republican primary electorate. After Romney's 2008 defeat in the Iowa caucuses during the Republican primary -- at the hands of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, an evangelical and minister -- there was lots of grumbling from Romneyworld that the main reason their guy came up short was his faith. Iowans -- and especially those who considered themselves "born again" or evangelical -- were deeply skeptical of Romney's Mormonism and the Mormon faith more generally. Many believed it wasn't a Christian faith and, when being candid, considered it a quasi-cult.
Four years later, even as Romney was on his way to becoming the nominee, that skepticism among evangelicals was readily apparent. Romney lost every primary in 2012 in which exit polls found evangelical Christians comprised a majority of voters. In South Carolina, evangelicals were the decisive vote; they went for former House speaker Newt Gingrich by 22 points over Romney. Across all primary contests in 2012, Romney did 13 percentage points worse among evangelical Christians than non-evangelicals. (Is it possible that evangelicals were reacting to something other than Romney's Mormon faith when they voted for other candidates? Sure. But, it seems very unlikely.)
And, there's little evidence that Romney's past presidential bids have had much effect on how white evangelicals view Mormonism generally. This chart comes courtesy of a December 2012 Pew poll:
White evangelicals are roughly divided on whether Mormonism is a Christian religion and are significantly more skeptical of that fact than the public at large. And remember that 57 percent of Iowa caucus-goers in 2012 identified as "born again/evangelical" while 65 percent of South Carolina primary voters said the same.
I've always believed that Romney's Mormonism -- along with his wealth -- was something that made him seem "other" to the average Republican primary voter. Less than two percent of Americans, by most estimates, are Mormon. That number is far lower in places such as Iowa or South Carolina. Many Republican primary voters don't know anyone who is a Mormon or anyone who even knows a Mormon. It's a barrier to familiarity -- whether it should be or not. And, in states such as Iowa and South Carolina that are not only heavily evangelical but also demand retail politicking, any barrier like that is a big one.
None of the above should sway Romney from more publicly embracing his religion in this campaign (if there is a campaign for him). The best thing you can be in politics is yourself. But a "damn the torpedoes" approach by Romney on his Mormonism has to come with this expectation too: There are torpedoes out there.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.