By Byron York - 12/06/07 06:56 PM EST
Why did Mitt Romney suddenly decide that he had to give a speech on “Faith in America”?
He has long said he didn’t see a need for it. But he also usually added, “That could change.”
A few days ago, that did change.
A cynical observer might suspect that the reason for Romney’s turnabout on a speech dealing with the subject of his Mormonism is that Romney, long the front-runner in Iowa, is now trailing Mike Huckabee there.
The announcement of Romney’s speech just happened to come right after the state’s most important poll, the Des Moines Register survey, showed Huckabee has gained 22 points on Romney — from 17 behind to five ahead — in the past month.
So it had to be a panicked reaction to changing polls, right?
Romney aides say no. “It’s not related,” one told me shortly after the decision was announced. “The governor believes it’s the right time to address the issue.”
They also add that Romney was working on the speech before the latest polls came out.
Even though it’s difficult to believe that polls didn’t play any part in Romney’s decision, or at least the timing of it, it is true that the whole speech-or-no-speech question was far bigger than any poll.
Romney faced an unprecedented situation in American politics, and he had to do something about it.
According to research done in August by the Pew Research Center, a significant number of Americans of both parties — as well as a large number of the Republicans whose support Romney will need if he is to win his party’s nomination — are leery about voting for a Mormon.
Romney had to do something to try to break through that suspicion.
The suspicion is bipartisan. Thirty-one percent of Republicans told Pew researchers they have an unfavorable view of Mormons, while 28 percent of Democrats said the same thing.
When Pew asked Republicans whether they would be less likely to vote for a candidate for president if that candidate was Mormon, 25 percent said yes.
When Pew narrowed the question to white evangelical Protestant Republicans, the number was even higher — 36 percent.
When Pew narrowed it even further, to white evangelical Protestant Republicans who attend church weekly, it was 41 percent.
That is a huge number — and it includes precisely the type of voters who are important in some key Republican caucuses and primaries.
Other findings were less dramatic, but still significant. Sixteen percent of white mainline Protestant voters said they are less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate. And 21 percent of white non-Hispanic Catholic voters said the same thing.
Some of that opinion springs from people simply not knowing much about Mormonism.
Fifty-one percent of those surveyed by Pew said they knew little or nothing about the religion, while 49 percent said they were familiar with it.
Also, having an unfavorable impression of Mormonism roughly correlates with having a lower education level; Pew found that 31 percent of those with a high-school degree or less have an unfavorable impression of Mormonism, while 21 percent of college graduates feel that way.
But there’s also no doubt that for some significant number of people, discomfort with Mormonism is not a function of ignorance. Some of them know about it and simply find it strange.
To the degree that they associate that with Romney, it adds a drag on his campaign.
And there is some evidence that that is exactly what is happening.
Pew found that people view Romney as being more religious than his fellow candidates. Forty-six percent of those polled said they viewed Romney as very religious. The next-highest Republican was John McCain, whom just 19 percent viewed as very religious.
Romney’s number was even higher than George W. Bush’s — 43 percent characterized the president as very religious.
In many cases, voters view religiosity as a positive asset. “The poll finds that across the board, people who view candidates as religious have more favorable impressions of those candidates,” says Greg Smith, a research fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
So normally, Romney’s religion would be a plus. But that doesn’t necessarily apply to a Mormon.
And Romney’s disproportionately high “very religious” figure suggests that people do, indeed, view him as the Mormon candidate for president — with all the baggage that brings with it.
That’s why he had to give the speech, and give it now.
York is a White House correspondent for National Review. His column appears in The Hill each week.