Romney’s faith holds benefits

Conventional wisdom holds that prejudice against Mormons is a significant obstacle to Mitt Romney’s election as our next president. It’s undeniable that a significant number of Americans tell pollsters that they won’t vote for a Mormon. And surely there are some others who harbor unspoken narrow-mindedness in their hearts. But will today’s prejudice persist in the end? I say no, that other factors will wrest control of those voters’ decisions. And, furthermore, I believe there are hidden benefits to any lingering bigotry that will become a net plus for Romney. 

Let’s start with the facts. Many Americans tell pollsters that they won’t vote for Romney because he’s a Mormon. Almost a year ago, well before Romney’s nomination was inevitable, a June Gallup poll found that 22 percent of Americans felt they couldn’t vote for a Mormon for president. Subsequent to that, in late 2011, the Pew Research Center and its Forum on Religion and Public Life polled 1,019 Mormons nationwide and found that 32 percent of them suspected that Americans will balk at electing a Mormon president. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, 46 percent of Mormons say there is a lot of discrimination against Mormons in the United States while just 31 percent see a lot of discrimination against blacks. In short, Mormons harbor feelings of persecution.

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It’s here that one begins to understand some of Mitt Romney’s advantage. While we cannot know for certain that Romney shares his brethren’s pessimistic views of their religion’s image, there can be little doubt that he has lived much of his life feeling marginalized. The Mormon belief, uncovered by the Pew polling, that they endure more discrimination and prejudice than do African-Americans is particularly relevant. Mitt Romney doubtless feels that the mountain he is about to climb is bigger than the one Obama scaled. He might be right. A Gallup poll taken in 2011 found that only 5 percent still wouldn’t vote for a black for president, less than one-fourth the percentage Gallup found unwilling to vote for a Mormon.

So how does all this accrue to any benefit to Romney? First, a lot of Americans have probably figured out this prejudice against Mormons and feel badly about it. Despite notions that we’re a mean-spirited, bigoted society, we’re not. In fact, there are undoubtedly far more open hearts than haters and the former will work hard to prove that the American public isn’t prejudiced, just as many worked diligently four years ago to sweep the first African-American into office. It must be a sweet irony for Republicans to soak in that we’ll finally have the affirmative action candidate for the presidency. Barack Obama may have been the first African-American president, but Mitt Romney will be the first Latter-day Saint president, by the numbers a bigger achievement.

On another level, having been a Mormon all his life, including a stint as a bicycle-riding missionary in France, Mitt Romney will have some retail campaigning skills that few Republicans can match. Anyone who’s tried to sell the French on Joseph Smith’s prophecies should have no problem selling Ronald Reagan to independents and conservative Democrats. Romney’s background also provides skills in finding common ground. A Mormon who has lived in the “real world” of Bloomfield Hills, France, Harvard, Bain and Massachusetts politics knows how to find some common ground, and in a hurry. As soon as his life’s newest acquaintances discovered he was Mormon, he knew he was suspect. So he had to find ways to connect and build relationships with non-Mormons to get around their apprehensions. Mormons must learn early in life to pivot away from difficult topics when speaking of their faith and beliefs. All these communications skills should have prepared Romney well for the challenges before him.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.