Survey: Romney's Mormon religion may have little impact in election

Published: Thursday, July 26 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Republican presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney greets supporters during a campaign stop at the Hires Big H on 700 East and 400 South in Salt Lake City Friday, June 24, 2011. The latest Pew Forum survey shows few voters are concerned about Mitt Romney's Mormon faith, and those who are concerned say it won't determine how they vote.

Brian Nicholson, Deseret News archives

SALT LAKE CITY — While a new survey of voters shows Mitt Romney's Mormon faith may have little consequence in November's election, some observers of the 2012 presidential race aren't ready to entirely dismiss the possible impact of a lingering animosity toward his religion.

Sixty percent of voters who know Romney is Mormon say they are comfortable with it, while 19 percent say it doesn't matter, a recent poll by the Pew Research Center found. And among Republicans who are uncomfortable with the presumptive GOP nominee's faith, a whopping 93 percent say they are still likely to vote for him.

But views are mixed on whether the minority of conservative Republicans who remain uncomfortable with Romney's faith — or the 32 percent who don't know he is Mormon — will have an impact in an election that remains close.

"Romney's not completely out of the woods, but he's close to a clearing," Joel Belz, founder of the evangelical bi-weekly World magazine, said of Romney capturing enough of the conservative Christian vote in November to avoid a religious backlash.

The nationwide survey of 2,973 adults, including 2,373 registered voters, was conducted June 28-July 9 by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The overall sample had a 2 percent margin of error.

The recent numbers bear out what the Pew Research Center found in November of last year — that Romney's membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was likely to be a drag on his primary campaign but considerably less of a factor if he won the GOP nomination.

At that time, Romney trailed Herman Cain by nine points among white evangelical Republican and Republican-leaning voters and led by that same margin among white mainline Protestant Republicans. He was running about even with Cain among white Catholic GOP voters. Those evangelical voters were a dominant voting bloc in the primary states where Romney lost, which included every southern state but Florida.

But the recent survey shows most of those voters appear to be rallying — some reluctantly — behind the last man standing before next month's GOP convention in Tampa Bay, Fla.

"White evangelical Protestants overwhelmingly back Romney over Obama regardless of their feelings about his faith," the Pew survey stated. "But evangelicals who are comfortable with Romney's Mormonism express substantially more strong support for his candidacy than those who are uncomfortable with his faith (41 percent vs. 16 percent)."

Then there is the 7 percent sliver of Republicans whose discomfort with Romney's Mormon faith appears so strong they can't support him.

Added to that small minority is another 32 percent who don't know Romney's religious affiliation, despite months of media coverage delving into his Mormon background and speculation on whether it would help him or hurt him to talk about it.

The survey also found 31 percent of American's didn't know President Barack Obama's faith, and an increasing number of Republicans are misidentifying the president's faith. After nearly four years in office, the number of Republicans who say Obama is Muslim (he is in fact a Christian) has increased 14 percentage points to 30 percent since 2008.

Whether awareness or ignorance of Romney's or Obama's faith will have a noticeable impact when it comes time to vote in November is tough to predict.

Matthew Wilson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, explained that while there is a sizable minority that is uncomfortable with Mormonism, these voters are either so liberal they would never vote for a Republican or so conservative they would vote for anyone but Obama.

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