In a column last week, I argued that Mitt Romney’s “Mormon problem” is basically over now that he’s sewn up the Republican presidential nomination. Romney’s religion was a challenge for him in the Republican primary race, when many evangelical Protestants hesitated to support a Mormon; but now that we’re in the general election campaign, that isn’t likely to matter anymore.
After I wrote, a new Gallup poll was released with an intriguing finding: The percentage of Americans who say they would not vote for a Mormon is virtually unchanged since 1967 -- 17% then, 18% now. That suggests that anti-Mormon feeling has been amazingly stable over half a century, a period during which voters’ reluctance to support candidates who were black, female or Jewish declined dramatically.
But the headline obscured an important point: Republicans are readier than ever to support a Mormon for president, but Democrats are less willing. On this issue, the GOP has grown more tolerant -- and Democrats less so.
In the new Gallup poll, only 10% of Republicans said they would not vote for a GOP candidate who happened to be a Mormon. That’s way down from 30% in early 2007, when Romney was testing the waters for his first presidential campaign, and significantly lower than the 18% recorded in late 2007.
Meanwhile, Democrats’ aversion to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has kicked up a notch: The poll found that 24% said they would not vote for a Democratic candidate for president who happened to be a Mormon. That’s about equal to the 23% who answered that way in early 2007, but more than the 18% who said no in late 2007.
It’s hard to avoid seeing a straightforward “Romney effect” here. Now that Republican voters know that their nominee is going to be a Mormon, many of those who said they’d never vote for one are eating their words. Now that Democratic voters see a Mormon on the GOP ticket, they’re discovering all kinds of things about the LDS Church to dislike. It’s got nothing to do with doctrine; voters are adjusting their opinions on religion to fit their political preferences.
So will the “Mormon question” affect the outcome of the presidential election? It doesn’t look as if it will affect GOP turnout. Romney’s level of support among Republicans, including evangelical Protestants, is about 90%, equal to John McCain’s in 2008. The uptick in anti-Mormon sentiment among Democrats doesn’t matter either; most liberal, secular or African American voters wouldn’t have supported Romney regardless of church membership. The one worry for Romney, in a close election, lies in that tiny sliver of swing voters who are up for grabs. Among independents, 18% said they couldn’t vote for a Mormon -- still more than admit to similar qualms about voting for, say, an African American.