SALT LAKE CITY – A majority of Utahns believe the perception of the Mormon faith has gotten better since the last presidential race, but most still see LDS Church membership as a negative for Jon Huntsman Jr. and Mitt Romney.
The latest Deseret News/KSL-TV poll results come on the eve of Huntsman becoming the second LDS candidate for president in 2012. Utah's former governor is set to announce his bid for the White House Tuesday morning at the Statue of Liberty.
Romney, the other Mormon in the race and the former leader of the Salt Lake Olympics, ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008 and is widely seen as the current frontrunner.
A new national poll released Monday confirms there continues to be a reluctance to vote for a Mormon presidential candidate.
A Gallup poll released Monday showed 22 percent of Americans would not vote for their political party's presidential nominee next year if that person is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The national poll, conduced June 9-12, found Americans' resistance to electing a Mormon president is exceeded only by their opposition to voting for an atheist, or a gay or lesbian candidate. The percentage of those unwilling to vote for a Mormon has remained largely unchanged since 1967.
In Utah, 50 percent of registered voters surveyed by Dan Jones & Associates said Huntsman's and Romney's Mormonism will impact their campaigns negatively. Nearly one-third said it would have no impact but just 17 percent saw membership in the church as having a positive effect on the race.
Still, just over two-thirds of Utahns agreed that in general, the perception of the LDS faith in other areas of the country is better than it was during the last presidential race. Only 8 percent said it was worse; 15 percent saw the perception as about the same.
The Deseret News/KSL-TV poll was conducted June 13-16 of 406 registered voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent. Sixty-five percent of the poll respondents identified themselves as active members of the LDS Church.
"Utahns are a little sensitized," said Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a longtime Romney supporter who is also close to Huntsman.
"What many polls fail to capture is Mormonism is a huge plus for many people in the country. Focus groups show Mormons are seen as honest and hard-working and patriotic," Jowers said.
He said Romney's 2008 campaign provided "millions of people an opportunity to learn about Mormons, and usually more information provides greater tolerance and understanding."
Then, Romney delivered a major speech on religion in an attempt to answer concerns about his faith raised by conservative evangelical voters who don't see Mormons as fellow Christians.
National media outlets including Time magazine and 60 Minutes detailed Romney's beliefs as a Mormon, even as other candidates, especially Mike Huckabee, a Baptist preacher, challenged them.
Jowers said having two members of the LDS Church in the 2012 race could further the discussion and possibly begin chipping at the longtime opposition among some Americans.
"I think the Romney/Huntsman combination will continue to make people interested in Mormonism," Jowers said. "The more people know about Mormonism will certainly have an impact, one way or another."
Past Gallup polls found that in 1959, the year before the voters elected the first Catholic U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, one-quarter of Americans said they would not vote for a Catholic. That opposition fell to 21 percent by 1960 and to 13 percent by August 1961, Gallup reported in an analysis of its latest poll.
Matthew Wilson, a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who specializes in religion and politics, said it's not clear how much attention the average American paid to the debate over Romney's faith in the last election.
"There remains a lot more ignorance about Mormonism" than other religions, Wilson said. "There are a lot of people in this country who don't know any Mormons."
He said Utahns who believe the national perception of Mormons is improving "may be somewhat optimistic, or looking with rose-colored glasses. … Most Americans are not hostile to the LDS Church. But there remains a significant minority that has prejudices they are willing to state."
Wilson said with Romney as the frontrunner in the 2012 race, Mormonism will be even more of an issue in this election. He said candidates would do well to stress that on most social and political questions. "Mormon belief is right in the mainstream of American conservative Christianity."
Earlier this month, the head of public affairs for the LDS Church wrote an open letter published on the Washington Post's website addressed to an evangelical writer who said that a vote for Mitt Romney or any Mormon "promotes a false and dangerous religion."
"Substitute the word 'Jew' for 'Mormon' and see how comfortable that feels," Michael Otterson wrote. "We may reasonably hope that most people vote on the basis of policy positions and not of denomination."