A survey suggests that Mitt Romney's Mormon faith may not hurt him… (Charles Krupa / Associated…)
It is the X factor in Mitt Romney's candidacy, unpredictable because it is unprecedented: How will voters react to his Mormon faith?
Never before has a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints been a major party nominee for president, and surveys have shown that as many as one-fifth of Americans would be reluctant to entrust a Mormon with the highest office in the land. White evangelicals--a key Republican constituency--have been especially skeptical.
Romney's own actions suggest that he may believe it is a political liability. He virtually never mentions his faith by name, and has reacted sharply in the past to suggestions that he talk about it. About as close as he's come lately was on Saturday, at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., where he spoke to evangelical Christian students about finding common ground among people "of different faiths, like yours and mine."
But a study done for the Brookings Institution suggests that Romney may have little to fear. In a paper published Wednesday, Matthew Chingos and Michael Henderson say Romney's religious background probably won't hurt him and may even help.
Chingos, a Brookings fellow, and Henderson, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Mississippi, conducted an online survey in which people were questioned about Romney in one of four ways.
In one, they were asked about him without any mention of his religion. In the second, they were told he is a Mormon. In the third, they were given background about the Latter-day Saints in ways that emphasized their similarities to mainstream Christians. A fourth question emphasized differences by briefly discussing the Book of Mormon and its history.
Result: Political conservatives were actually more likely to support Romney when they learned he was a Mormon, and hearing about the differences between his faith and more traditional Christianity made little difference. The boost was surprising: 54% of conservatives supported him when they were told nothing about his faith, but that jumped to 73% when they were told he is Mormon.
The information about his religion made no difference to liberals, who aren't likely to vote for Romney anyway.
"Our results should not be taken as definitive, particularly because they are not based on a nationally representative sample," wrote the authors, who surveyed 2,084 people online. "But they do suggest that concerns over Mitt Romney’s `religion problem' have been overblown and quite possibly miss a compelling counter-narrative. Romney’s religion does not seem to reduce his support among white evangelicals. ... At the end of the day, it appears that voters’ long-term political preferences matter more for their general election choice than the religious identity of the Republican nominee."
There was just one lingering puzzle. Why, the authors wondered, would Romney’s Mormon faith make conservatives more likely to support him? They offered no conclusive theory, but said that “one compelling idea is that Romney’s religion gives voters a clue about how the candidates differ ideologically.” Since most Mormons are political conservatives, voters “may transfer this conservatism to a particular Mormon candidate”-- i.e., Romney.