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A Mormon for President? Voters Balk

Times Staff Writer

Most traditional barriers to religion in presidential elections have toppled, a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found. In particular, the survey released today shows that anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism are fading among voters.

But uneasiness about some religions persists. Thirty-seven percent of those questioned said they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate, and 54% said no to the prospect of a Muslim in the White House.

In addition, 21% said they could not vote for an evangelical Christian.

Fifteen percent said they would not vote for a Jewish presidential candidate, and 10% were unwilling to cast ballots favoring a Catholic chief executive.

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“This clearly shows that the old Protestant/Catholic/Jewish distinction has largely eroded in American politics,” said David Campbell, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. “That doesn’t mean that candidates from religious groups that might be considered to be exotic, in the way that Catholics once were thought to be exotic, wouldn’t necessarily be confronted with challenges.”

The nationwide survey of 1,321 adults was conducted June 24 to 27. The poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, Poll Director Susan Pinkus said.

Poll results were released in three stages. Economic findings came out Thursday; political conclusions on Friday; and information about religion today.

No Muslims appear likely to seek the presidency in 2008. But the numbers could be a threat to Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (as the Mormon Church is formally known) who is exploring a run for the GOP presidential nomination.

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“It is something he will have to address,” said Merle Black, a professor of politics at Emory University. “It will be a challenge. It doesn’t necessarily kill him as a candidate, but he may have to talk in more detail than he ever has before about his faith.”

His religion apparently was no detriment in Massachusetts in 2002, when he easily won election as governor. Massachusetts is one of the most heavily Catholic states in the country, and also one of the most Democratic.

The governor is from a family that is almost as political as it is Mormon. His late father, George Romney, was a three-term governor of Michigan who also made a brief, unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination. Lenore Romney, the Massachusetts governor’s late mother, lost a Republican bid for the U.S. Senate.

Mitt Romney, who made a fortune as a venture capitalist, suffered defeat in his maiden political outing in 1994 when he ran against Democrat Edward M. Kennedy for a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts.

As a young man, Romney was a Mormon missionary in France. He graduated from LDS-sponsored Brigham Young University in Utah. Romney was president of an LDS stake -- a group of local congregations, comparable to a Catholic diocese -- in Belmont, Mass., where his family settled more than 30 years ago. He has also overseen a local Mormon congregation as a bishop.

A great-grandfather had five wives, but the church now opposes polygamy, as does Romney. The Mormon Church has about 12.5 million members worldwide, according to the church website; a little under half are in the U.S.

Romney is reticent about his religion, citing privacy and contending that candidates should not be judged on their “brand of faith.” But he regularly describes himself as a Christian, saying, “Jesus Christ is my savior.”

Some branches of Christianity do not embrace the Mormon Church. On its website, the Southern Baptist Convention includes Mormonism in a section called “cults, sects and new religious movements.” Kenyn Cureton, a vice president of the Baptist convention, says his church does not regard Mormons as Christians.

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“They are not orthodox in their beliefs,” Cureton said. “They have additional books that they add to the Bible, which evangelical Christians believe is God’s word. They believe that there are many, many gods and that you too can become a god in your own world. It sounds good, but unfortunately it is not based on sound teaching.”

Cureton praised Mormons as “very moral, very family-oriented people.” Southern Baptists, he said, “would appreciate that angle. But as far as our beliefs, we would have disagreements.”

Republican political consultant Mike Murphy, who advised Romney in his gubernatorial bid, said any discussion about Romney’s religion as a potential obstacle to the presidency was premature, and probably misplaced. Murphy also has counseled the Massachusetts governor as he tests the waters for the 2008 presidential race.

“I think the poll is wrong,” Murphy said. “I think this is a classic example of how with polling data, you can find something that is not predictive at all.”

Besides, Murphy said, “When he ran for governor of Massachusetts, everybody said there was no way a Mormon would win in one of the most Catholic states in America. I’ve been to this movie before.”

If his religion was the only thing voters knew about Romney in a “hypothetical candidacy,” that could be an impediment, Murphy said.

“If he runs, I think he won’t be judged only through that prism,” he said. “When you break it down to one aspect for a guy, that is a mistake. Polls, I am sure, said the exact same thing about John F. Kennedy a year before he ran.”

Indeed, in a Roper poll from June 1960, 35% of respondents said either that it might be better not to have a Catholic president or that they would be against it. Then-Sen. John F. Kennedy gave a speech on the subject of his religion that September, and he was elected president two months later.

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But Emory University political scientist Black rejected the comparison to biases against Catholic or Jewish candidates.

“I don’t think it is of the same status, because Mormonism has never been seen as a mainstream religion,” Black said.

If Romney does seek his party’s nomination, Black said that especially among Southern Baptists, the hesitancy about Mormonism could be “a huge problem.”

Black predicted: “He’s going to have to defend himself and explain himself. If he makes it through to the general election, there may be some validation.”

Campbell, of Notre Dame, agreed that the early primaries would be critical for Romney, should he seek the presidency.

According to Campbell, “The question facing Mitt Romney is: Will he be the Mormons’ Al Smith -- who was the first Catholic ever to run for president, in 1928, and went down in flames -- or will he be the Mormons’ John F. Kennedy?”

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How the Poll Was Conducted

The Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll contacted 1,321 adults nationwide by telephone June 24 through 27. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation, and random-digit dialing techniques allowed listed and unlisted numbers to be contacted. Multiple attempts were made to contact each number. Results were weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and region. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For certain subgroups, the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results may also be affected by such factors as question wording and the order in which questions were presented.

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Times Poll Associate Director Jill Darling Richardson contributed to this report.


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