The road to South Carolina: Romney's Mormon problem

Romney's religion is a problem in the primaries, but it won't be in the general election. Obama can make a Mormon palatable to evangelicals. Photo: Associated Press

NATCHITOCHES, La., January 16, 2012 — Mitt Romney’s victory in Iowa was less than decisive, leading some to conclude that Romney will fail utterly to energize the GOP base. He received as many votes as Rick Santorum, but some suspect that Santorum would have captured a lot more of Rick Perry’s, Michele Bachmann’s, and Newt Gingrich’s votes than Romney would have, had those three not been in the race.

If you think that it would have been 55% Santorum to 25% Romney in a three-way race with Ron Paul, and worse, if you think Iowa’s vote was 75% anti-Romney, then it bodes ill for Romney. But here’s where we should ask two questions: “Just how representative is Iowa, anyway?” And, “does ‘anyone but Romney’ include Barack Obama?”

Iowa was probably one of the worst states for Romney to start in. Iowa voters in general pretty well track national voting trends, but the Iowa GOP really is different from the GOP in other states. It is more Christian evangelical, it is more socially conservative, and in a head-on race between a Mormon and a Mike Huckabee, a Pat Robertson, or even a Catholic Santorum, the Mormon will lose.

It’s become reflexive for social-conservative voters to insist that Mormonism isn’t an issue, that it’s Romney’s record of flip-flops and Massachusetts’ individual insurance mandates, but polls tell us that evangelical Christians don’t trust Mormons. To ignore the religion issue is like ignoring President Obama’s race. No one who cares what other people think would admit to caring that Obama is (sort of) Black, but there are still a lot of bigots in the world. To declare that we live in a post-racial world because we’ve had black men and women serve in the most sensitive and important cabinet posts, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the United States Supreme Court and in the White House is just absurd. Race matters.

And religion matters.

New Hampshire didn’t defuse this concern. It was Romney’s “back yard,” they say, and he has a summer home there. Of course he won, they add, but he really lost because his win wasn’t bigger. He won because he spent more money. But it will be different in South Carolina.

Perhaps. But there are counter-objections. Romney spent more money than Santorum in Iowa, but he had the money to spend, and it allowed him to spend time in other states while Santorum spent all his time in Iowa to compensate for the money he didn’t have. If New Hampshire voters, who know Romney better than most of us, still gave him the victory, his Massachusetts record may not be as toxic as his GOP rivals hope.

And if the nomination goes to Romney, his religion will matter a whole lot less than Obama does. Pew Research reported in November that 87% of GOP-leaning voters would support Romney over Obama, 71% of them strongly. It looks even better for Romney among White evangelical Christians: 91% would support Romney, 79% of them strongly.

Mitt Romney isn’t the first choice of GOP evangelicals to be their nominee. In South Carolina they’re “desperate” to stop Romney and coalesce around a “genuine conservative,” according to reports. But their opposition to him is clearly not that he’s unelectable. In fact, concerns about electability are probably helping to prevent evangelical and Tea Party support from coalescing around Santorum, who otherwise appears to be the favorite of evangelical leaders.

The evangelical leaders who met in Texas and supported Santorum declined to bash Romney. If it seems likely that he will be the GOP nominee and that he’s more electable than Santorum, that decision is wise. If their best of all possible worlds is to replace Obama with a strong social conservative, their worst alternative is probably four more years of President Obama. They can’t afford to pile on to destroy Romney.

The nay-sayers are wrong. Romney won’t thrill a large part of the GOP base, but it will unify behind him. Romney really is moderate, but outside the GOP base that is seen more as a virtue than as a vice. Romney isn’t John McCain, not least because President Obama is no longer an unknown quantity and Romney isn’t burdened with his own party’s incumbent.

Romney can win. His LDS faith will ultimately matter much less in the general election than it does now, even among evangelicals.

Read more about the candidates here:

Social conservatives endorse Rick Santorum

Mitt Romney: Not the conservative answer to Obama

Jon Huntsman drops out: He is endorsing Mitt Romney

Jon Huntsman and the Republican underperformers







James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. Like most Americans, his wife thinks Mormons are sort of strange, but she married one anyway. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

Contact Jim Picht


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