SC Voters Reserved Over Romney's Mormonism

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally in Florence, South Carolina.

With two days left before the voting in South Carolina,  Rick Perry’s out, Mitt Romney is losing ground to Newt Gingrich in the polls. But Gingrich's second wife is detailing his alleged request for an open marriage - and Romney’s still Mormon.  

If South Carolina’s evangelical voters were split and undecided earlier this week, today’s developments – which leave only two Catholics, a Mormon, and Protestant Ron Paul in the running – only muddy the picture even more.

As I talked to voters over several days in South Carolina this week, it’s clear that there are real reservations among evangelical voters about having to opt for a candidate who doesn’t worship in the same Protestant pews as they do.

“I'm a Christian, and so that is very important to me,” Candida Alford said, after attending the Faith and Freedom rally in Myrtle Beach on Monday. At the time, she said she was leaning between Perry and Gingrich. “I'm not saying that would definitely change my vote on it, but that is very important to me.”

Bryant Scott showed up to the same event largely decided on Mitt Romney, but after a few men, whom he described as wearing suits and looking like politicians, approached him and started talking about Mormons, including that they believed Jesus and Satan are brothers. That's a characterization of scripture that Mormons reject, but Scott told me he had more to check out on Romney.

“He's basically a Mormon, which is neither good or bad right now,” he said, “but I've got a lot of research to do on that basis.” 

This unfamiliarity with Mormonism is not unique to South Carolina, at least according to Mormons themselves. In a national survey released last week by Pew, six in ten said they felt Americans know either “not much” or “nothing.”

In South Carolina, it wasn’t just among voters who turned out for a Ralph Reed-organized rally that had reservations about Romney. In Batesburg, a town on the eastern edge of Lexington County, where results mirrored the statewide returns in 2008, County, a woman at a BBQ joint told me that on no uncertain terms would she vote for a Mormon. "Don't they have more than one wife?” she asked.

Another man pointed to a photograph of all five then-candidates in his local paper, saying not their names but their religion as he went down the line. (He planned on voting, and both the Catholics and the Mormons were out for him.)

In talking with South Carolina voters, these kinds of comments about Romney didn’t come up immediately. But when prompted with a follow-up question like, “what do you mean you want a candidate who shares your values?,” Romney’s religion came up again and again.

Of course, these doubts about Romney only matter if there’s an alternative they feel more comfortable supporting. In a poll taken at the start of the week, Romney attracted the most support among evangelical voters – and that was before Perry’s exit or Gingrich’s combative/thrilling debate performance and this talk of an open marriage.

And I also met plenty of voters for whom religion or social issues were not the prime motivator for their vote this year. Republican Daryl Kangarloo supported Obama in 2008, but has been disappointed and was resurveying the field this week after her first choice, Jon Huntsman, ended his campaign.

“I don't vote for religion, or white, black green, it doesn't matter to me,” she told me in Myrtle Beach. “I want someone who can do the job and have some good ideas that they know how to put into action and if they understand international politics, I'm all for it.”

Until then, expect the four remaining candidates, the SuperPAC juggernauts, and pointed whisper campaigns to sway South Carolina’s still up-for-grabs evangelical voters. And as in previous Republican campaigns, it’s gotten dirty down here in the South.

“Are things that would not play on the national stage more likely to play here? Yes, of course,” Will Folks told me. He runs the conservative blog FitsNews. His site first reported the fliering of cars outside a pro-life forum in Greenville on Wednesday night, accusing Karen Santorum, Rick’s wife, of having a previous relationship with a doctor who performed abortions. “I’m not going to say that the South Carolina electorate has ever set a very high bar for enlightened discourse. That’s obvious.”

All this will likely be moot come November, as the most palpable energy in South Carolina this week wasn’t for any particular candidate. It was about throwing Obama out.

“People are going to come up with a lot of reasons to dislike him,” Folks continued. “But I think for most Republican voters out there, the main reason is that we’re looking at an unemployment rate that’s still over 8 percent, 35 months after the stimulus.”

And in a state where unemployment is still higher than the national average, “that’s a critical number for a lot of people.”