Magazine article The Washington Monthly

Mitt Romney's Evangelical Problem: Everyone Wants to Believe the Massachusetts Governor's Mormonism Won't Be a Problem If He Runs in 2008. Think Again

Magazine article The Washington Monthly

Mitt Romney's Evangelical Problem: Everyone Wants to Believe the Massachusetts Governor's Mormonism Won't Be a Problem If He Runs in 2008. Think Again

Article excerpt

Washington pundits in the throes of post-election doldrums are notoriously eager to find a fresh face to crown the "early favorite" for the next presidential campaign. Even by those standards, however, the speed with which they flocked to Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been remarkable. Last December, barely a month after Bush's reelection, George Will devoted a column to Romney's potential, and a quick succession of profiles in the Weekly Standard, National Review, and The Atlantic Monthly appeared in the spring. Who could blame them? Romney has had a successful business career (he is known to most Americans as the man who saved the Salt Lake City Olympics). He comes from noble moderate Republican lineage (his father was governor of Michigan). He is attractive (the National Review sighed over his "chiseled handsomeness"). And he grabbed national headlines--and the attention of social conservatives--by standing up to the Massachusetts Supreme Court's legalization of gay marriage. Just as Democrats are always looking for a liberal nominee from a red state, Republicans dream about a candidate like Romney: a social conservative from the most cerulean of blue states who can please the base while not scaring off moderates.

There's only one problem. Romney is a Mormon, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). Mormonism was never an issue when Orrin Hatch ran for president, but Hatch was never talked up with even a smidgen of the seriousness that accompanies the Massachusetts governor. Yet each Romney profile plays down the Mormon issue. In a typical treatment, under the headline "Matinee Mitt," John Miller admits in National Review that some of Romney's Republican opponents might highlight a few of "Mormonism's doctrinal oddities," but concludes that "there is no telling how this will play out," and "it's even possible to think that Romney's Mormonism could become a hidden asset."

It's understandable that political observers want to think Romney's religion wouldn't be a problem. He's an appealing candidate with compassionate conservative allure. Moreover, we would all like to believe that a politician's religious affiliation isn't an obstacle to higher office. There's a general sense, particularly among the chattering class, that we've gotten past that. Didn't Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) run on the Democratic ticket in 2000 with no problem? Aren't there a handful of Catholic candidates among the field of potential Republican nominees for 2008?

Americans have indeed become more religiously tolerant, but the first Mormon to run for president will clearly have to change some minds. In the late 1960s, the percentage of Americans who said they would not vote for a Jewish or Catholic presidential candidate was in the double-digits; by 1999, those numbers had fallen to 6 and 4 percent, respectively (roughly the same as the percentage of voters who say they wouldn't vote for a Baptist). Compare that to the 17 percent of Americans who currently say they would have qualms electing a Mormon to the White House. That number hasn't changed one whit since 1967, the year that Romney's father considered a presidential run (he abandoned the effort after he told reporters that the military had "brainwashed" him into supporting the Vietnam War).

Some of this anti-Mormonism is a fairly fuzzy sort of bias, based mostly on rumors and unfamiliarity and the vague feeling that Mormons are kind of weird. It's a wobbly opposition that can be overcome by good public relations that defuses concerns about the religion and shifts focus to the personality of the candidate. This is how someone like Romney gets elected in a blue state like Massachusetts, where even Republicans are generally tolerant.

But moderate Republicans aren't the ones who could derail a Romney candidacy. His obstacle is the evangelical base--a voting bloc that now makes up 30 percent of the Republican electorate and that wields particular influence in primary states such as South Carolina and Virginia. …

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