Opinion: Does Mitt Romney Have a Mormon Problem?

The burning question of whether Mitt Romney’s faith will be a liability in his quest for the 2012 Presidential nomination is plaguing Iowa pundits as we try to predict the GOP caucus in January.

Never in American political history have two Mormons run as candidates for president of the United States. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are both vying for that title this year, and how it plays into the race has yet to really be seen.

In Iowa only one percent of folks are Mormons, which means most people have never met or talked to a Mormon, and that stereotypes could dominate. To be sure, Mormons are solidly for the GOP - 60 percent call themselves conservative, 61 percent say abortion should be illegal, and 68 percent say homosexuality should be discouraged.

A significant percentage of Republicans still think Mormonism is a cult, and that could be a problem for Romney in a tight race for the nomination. Remember, though that he did well in Iowa the last time around, winning the Ames Straw Poll and getting 25 percentage of the vote in the caucuses behind Mike Huckabee.

Most Republicans will vote for the party nominee whoever he is, except that important, probably crucial, slice of Americans of any party persuasion who really do find the Mormon religion unacceptable. What's puzzling to me is that as Romney continues his painful slog, the GOP base seems to be doing everything except swing in his direction.

When the Pew Center asked Americans about Islam and Mormonism, the results were interesting. Asked if the Mormon religion is different from their own, 62 percent of Americans said it was, and 70 percent said the same about Islam. When asked if they have a favorable opinion of Mormonism, 53 percent said favorable and 27 percent said unfavorable.

Asked to name one word that expressed an unfavorable opinion of Mormonism, "cult," "bigamy" and "polygamy" were the three most common ones. The positive terms mentioned were "family" or "family values," "devout," "good" and "faith."

Among white evangelicals who attend services at least weekly, 52 percent believe that the Mormon religion is not Christian. This could be an important factor in the Iowa caucuses and among faith-based Republicans throughout the United States.

Michael Gerson, citing a recent Gallup Poll, wrote in the Washington Post that "20 percent of Republicans and 23 percent of Protestants tell Gallup they would not support a Mormon for president. A portion of conservative Christianity is unhinged in its condemnation, regarding Mormonism as a dangerous, secretive cult. Even without recourse to calumny, it is clear that evangelicals will not be reconciled to Mormon doctrines without ceasing to be evangelicals."

These numbers should be troubling since presidential races are usually won by a squeaker, so any large numbers saying the won’t vote for Romney is dangerous as are the significant “Mormon negatives.”

Balancing this are the stats that show voters overwhelmingly believe that Romney is qualified to be president. In the most recent Bloomberg poll over 80 percent of New Hampshire and Iowa respondents say that Romney is qualified to “ … sit in the Oval Office, has the business experience necessary to create jobs, or is very smart.”

Romney was the preferred choice of 40 percent of likely New Hampshire primary voters. Ron Paul was second at 17 percent, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is at 11 percent and the other candidates are below 10 percent.

So the puzzle we face is whether Romney’s positives outweigh the concern about his Mormon faith (and his flip-flopping on issues) as voters in Iowa and the Granite State prepare to cast their votes. 

Steffen Schmidt is professor of political science at Iowa State University, blogs for the Des Moines Register and WNYC “It’s a Free Country,” and is chief political correspondent for Insideriowa.com.