Comparative polling suggests public shift in comfort with a Mormon president

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 8 2011 9:45 p.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, greets employees before speaking during a campaign stop at Giese Manufacturing, Monday, Nov. 7, 2011, in Dubuque, Iowa.

Associated Press

A new national public opinion poll suggests that a significant shift may be taking place among Americans relative to their comfort with seeing a Mormon in the White House.

And as far as backers of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr. are concerned, it's not a good shift.

According to a new public opinion poll released early Tuesday by the Public Religion Research Institute, "a majority of voters (53 percent) said they were somewhat or very comfortable with a Mormon president, while 42 percent said a Mormon president would make them somewhat or very uncomfortable," wrote Dan Merica for CNN.

When compared with the number of respondents (67 percent) who said that it is "either very important or somewhat important for a presidential candidate to have strong religious beliefs," it appears that voters "have certain types of religious beliefs in mind, and hold significant reservations about the beliefs of some minority religious groups," Merica said.

Breaking down the numbers of those who indicated they would be "uncomfortable" with a Mormon serving as president, those who identified themselves as Republicans were the least concerned (36 percent), while both independent (38 percent) and Democratic (50 percent) voters indicated greater concern.

Reuters added that the poll indicated voters would only be less comfortable with a Muslim (64 percent) or an atheist (67 percent) president.

The new survey represents a change — or at the very least, a difference — from similar polls conducted by other polling companies earlier this year.

It should be noted that comparing public opinion poll results from one polling company to the next can be problematic at best and completely misleading at worst. There are differences in methodology, in sample sizes and even in the language of survey questions that can make comparing survey results a dangerous proposition. Even the time frame during which the survey was conducted can make a difference.

For example, several days ago Yahoo News wondered if Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain was "the Teflon candidate" because his polling numbers didn't seem to be affected by sexual harassment charges against him from his professional past. On Monday, however, CBS News reported an Ipsos poll indicating that Cain's polling numbers had fallen significantly during the past week.

Different polls, different days, different numbers.

That said, comparing several different poll results during the past several months seems to suggest some interesting movement is taking place among American voters with regards to their feelings about voting for a presidential candidate who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

By way of comparison:

CNN/ORC International poll released Oct. 19 held that 80 percent of Americans said "a candidate's Mormonism wouldn't make a difference in their selection process."

In June, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center indicated that "a substantial majority of Americans (68 percent) say it would not matter to them if a presidential candidate was Mormon. Among Republicans that number was 70 percent, while 61 percent of Democrats said Mormonism wouldn't matter.

Also in June, a Gallup poll said that 76 percent of potential voters would be willing to vote for a Mormon candidate, with that number climbing to 80 percent among Republican voters and falling to 73 percent among Democrats. It should be noted that the Gallup organization said this number hadn't changed much since 1967, when they first started tracking public feelings about Mormonism (not coincidentally, during the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney's father, George W. Romney).

But now, according to PRRI, something has changed — or at least, it seems to have changed, if the comparative numbers between polls can be taken at face value.

"Views about Mormonism are highly correlated with opinions of Romney," the survey's executive summary says. "Nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of voters who believe that Mormons have religious beliefs that are somewhat or very similar to their own and who are familiar with Romney, have a favorable view of him. In contrast, among voters who say Mormons' religious beliefs are somewhat or very different, less than half (47 percent) report having a favorable position."

Speaking during a post-survey release media briefing, PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones said that the good news for Romney, is that "those opinions may not be strongly held," adding that Romney could discredit any "loosely-held" beliefs about Mormons with effective campaigning.

Besides, Cathy Lynn Grossman in USA Today points out that none of this may matter: "Only 42 percent can correctly identify Mitt Romney as Mormon, and Jon Huntsman is still bottoming out on most awareness polls."

EMAIL: jwalker@desnews.com

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