Finding Truth in the “Would Not Vote for a Mormon” Polls

Democratic political consultant Mark Mellman has a very good piece up today at The Hill on the baffling and illegitimate opposition among voters to Mitt Romney due to his religion. I liked his closing paragraphs:

In July of 1958, 24 percent of respondents told Gallup they would not vote for a Catholic for president, almost identical to Gallup’s reading on Mormons today. Two years later, John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic to assume the oath of office. Within eight months, the number refusing to vote for a Catholic was cut almost in half.

Sometimes, by confronting prejudice, we can overcome it.

Mellman also discusses an interesting poll he helped construct, in which the pollsters asked half of their respondents whether they would support a candidate with certain characteristics, and asked the other half about another candidate with the exact same characteristics, with one difference. The first candidate was Baptist, the second candidate was Mormon. The Baptist had a huge advantage over the Mormon candidate, by about 20 points.

This is one of the more sophisticated polls I’ve seen attempting to measure the actual difficulty people will have voting for Mitt Romney because he’s a Mormon. I put very little trust in earlier polls that simply asked people whether they would vote for a Mormon, because that disembodied, faceless Mormon in the question brought nothing attractive to the table, like real-life Mitt Romney unquestionably does.

However, more recent polls have attempted to fix the anonymity problem. A recent Time Magazine poll (read the original report here), for example, got to the heart of the question by asking respondents if they are less likely to vote for Mitt Romney specifically because he is a Mormon. The result is not as bad as some reporting on the poll has suggested. For example, while 30% of Republicans say they are less likely to vote for Romney because of his religion, fully 15% of other Republicans say that characteristic makes them more likely to vote for him. And while many have reported the finding that 23% of Republicans are “worried” by Romney’s Mormonism, the more important (but less-reported) number is that 73% say they hold no such reservations– a very strong super-majority.

Clearly, hesitancy about Romney’s faith exists among Republicans, but it is countered by a smaller group of Republicans that affirmatively favor his faith (a fact I have not seen reported anywhere in the news media), and that anti-Mormon sentiment is held by a decided minority, where the vast majority of those polled hold no such bias. But notwithstanding these moderate findings, one cannot argue with the ultimate point, which is that every other candidate gains support when his religious affiliations are accentuated, whereas Romney experiences the exact opposite effect. Given that Romney is perceived as more religious than any other candidate, this is a sad conclusion, since the perception of religiosity would be a huge advantage for him if his religion were anything besides what it actually is.

The Time poll has one other interesting nugget. It reports that while Republicans are less likely to support Romney due to his faith, this effect is much stronger in Democrats, with 32% becoming less supportive and only 9% becoming more so. This is one more piece of evidence supporting the growing theory that anti-Mormon bias in politics is much stronger on the left than on the right. Which in turn lends support for one interesting, but rather controversial, emerging theme in the campaign: that despite all of his faults in the eyes of conservatives, Rudy Giuliani is the GOP’s best shot at winning in the general election. One example of that conclusion is here, in an article tellingly titled “Rudy’s Electability, Mitt’s Mormonism.” The fact that Mitt Romney, with his centrist record (which is admittedly taking a backseat in his current conservative campaign), enormous competence and outstanding qualifications is not seen as electable in the general election is quite surprising to me. It would appear that formulations like that of the title of the above news piece emphasize an easy, but over-simplified view of the issue– Rudy is electable, Romney isn’t, because he’s a Mormon.

No one can say how true that simplistic statement is, but the specter of Mormon futility in a general election may be enough to scare primary voters away from supporting Romney. More likely, however, is that, as with all prejudices, the broad but shallow bias against voting for a Mormon will dissolve with greater familiarity. Perhaps the most surprising omission in the reporting on Romney’s religion problem is the failure of the commentariat to consider how quickly such prejudices vanish under the right conditions. If Iowa and New Hampshire (where Romney polls far out ahead of the rest of the GOP pack) give any legitimate representation of the country as a whole, there is very good evidence that getting to know Mitt Romney is one of those conditions. Equality-minded Americans of all stripes can only hope that the same remains true in the other 48.