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
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.
"While they are uncomfortable with Mormonism, they are much more profoundly unhappy with President Obama and will put aside their reservations about Mormonism and see Romney as a much more acceptable alternative," Wilson said.
The Pew study found the greatest skepticism about Mormonism being a Christian faith is among white evangelicals, 42 percent of which said it is not Christian, and black Protestants, of which 38 percent said it was not.
As for the impact of the 7 percent in a tight race, Belz predicts most of those voters will "swallow hard and vote for Romney," leaving a fraction who may either not vote or write someone in.
"That depends on if you can get them into the voting booth," said Quinn Monson, a political scientist at Brigham Young University. "They have to be enthused enough with Romney and upset enough at Obama to get out and vote."
He said that unlike McCain in 2008, Romney has the resources and the organization to accomplish that in swing states.
Wilson said the Pew data show a possible opening for Romney to energize that evangelical base by discussing his faith more openly and using it as a vehicle to bring moral values and faith into the debate.
The Pew report confirmed the persistence of a longstanding trend in which more than two thirds of voters want a president with strong religious beliefs. In the most recent survey, 67 percent said that was important to them. Another 52 percent said it does not bother them when politicians "talk about how religious they are."
"Even in a race where neither of the candidates wants to talk about religion, it's still the case that religious values are a huge dividing line between the two candidates," Wilson said. "No one is talking about it but it's still the elephant in the room."
But an earlier Pew survey found a minority of voters (16 percent) are interested in hearing more about Romney's religious beliefs, while far more voters wanted to hear about his record as governor (41 percent), his federal tax returns (36 percent) and his record at Bain Capital (35 percent).
Greg Smith, senior researcher with the Pew Research Center, said survey data from the 2008 presidential election help explain why voters say it's important that candidate to have strong religious beliefs, but have limited interest in an in-depth knowledge of the candidate's faith.
"People did have a more favorable view of candidates that they perceived as religious," Smith said. "But the bar for that was not particularly high. You didn't have to view a candidate to be very religious to have a favorable view of them."
But Smith said the impact of those who say they are uncomfortable with Romney's (13 percent) or Obama's faith (19 percent) shouldn't be minimized or ignored.11 comments on this story
"They are minorities but not insignificant minorities," Smith said. "But the other side of it is the patterns of views in those questions are linked to other factors in the election that kind of limit their potential to affect the outcome, because Republicans say they will vote for Romney whether or not they are comfortable with his faith, and Democrats say they will vote for Obama whether or not they are comfortable with his faith."
Other findings in the survey include:
— 66 percent of voters said churches or houses of worship should not endorse political candidates.
— 65 percent said liberals have gone too far in trying to keep religion out of schools and government.
— 48 percent said Christians have gone too far in trying to impose their religious values on the country.
— 50 percent of non-Mormons said Mormonism is a Christian religion, while 31 percent said it is not. Those numbers have remained steady since 2007.