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Parsing the Polls: Answering the Mormon Question

The fact that Mitt Romney is a Mormon is no secret. Scads of stories have been written about that very fact, and it's a regular topic of conversation among Washington's chattering class.

Mitt Romney
John F. Kennedy confronted the issue of voters' worries about his Catholicism in the 1960 primaries and general election. Will Mitt Romney, pictured above at his campaign announcement Tuesday in Michigan, take a page from the JFK playbook? (AP photo)

What effect Romney's religion will have on his chances at winning the 2008 Republican presidential nomination is much less clear. Some argue that evangelical voters, a core part of the GOP coalition, will never accept a Mormon candidate as one of their own. Others believe Romney's religion will become a non-issue as the campaign wears on.

Who's right? It's still too early to tell, but a look at recent survey data on the Mormon question suggests that Romney faces real skepticism about his religion among the Republican primary voters he needs to woo over the coming year. Thanks to Washington Post pollster extraordinaire Jon Cohen, we have all that information at our fingertips.

Let's parse the polls!

USA Today/Gallup released a poll on Tuesday that asked 1,006 adults whether they would support a "generally well qualified person" who was a Mormon. Nearly three in four (72 percent) said they would vote for a well-qualified Mormon candidate, while 24 percent said they would not.

But Romney's challenge is to convince Republicans -- not the American public at-large -- that his Mormonism shouldn't be an issue. Among the GOP sub-sample, 66 percent told USA Today/Gallup that they would support a Mormon candidate, while 30 percent said they would not (77 percent of independents and 72 percent of Democrats said they could back a Mormon).

Digging slightly deeper into the Gallup numbers, more skepticism becomes apparent. Of those 66 percent of Republicans who said they would cast a vote for a qualified Mormon, 54 percent said they would be "completely comfortable" with that decision while 12 percent expressed "some reservations" with that choice.

Combine those two questions and here's what you get: 54 percent of Republicans in the Gallup poll would vote for a qualified Mormon without a second thought; 42 percent would either not vote for a Mormon or would do so with some level of doubt.

That sentiment is reflected in variety of other recent surveys that asked the Mormon question. The Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted in December asked the sample whether a candidate's Mormonism would make it more or less likely that they would support him/her. Among the general sample, 35 percent said it would make them less likely to vote for a candidate, while three percent said it would make them more likely to choose a candidate. Among Republicans, it was 39 percent less likely/two percent more likely.

As Cohen points out, voters were significantly less influenced (or were less willing to admit it) by a candidate's gender or race. Seven percent of the overall sample said they would be more likely to vote for a female candidate, compared with 14 percent who said they would be less likely. For a black candidate, the numbers were nine percent more likely/7 percent less likely.

In the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey conducted in December, the pollsters asked voters about their thoughts on supporting a Mormon candidate. Four percent said they would be "enthusiastic" about that prospect, and 34 percent said they would be "comfortable" with it. Approximately one in four (27 percent) expressed "some reservations," while 26 percent said they would be "very uncomfortable" backing a Mormon for president. Taken together, 38 percent were "enthusiastic/comfortable" about voting for a Mormon, while 53 percent expressed either reservations or outright discomfort.

A CBS News survey out last night suggested that Americans are skeptical about the Mormon faith. Just 25 percent of the CBS sample had a favorable impression of Mormonism, compared with 30 percent who viewed it unfavorably. Compare that to the relatively favorable impressions of Protestantism (61/13), Catholicism (51/20), Judaism (48/13) and Christian Fundamentalism (35/26). The only religion to rank lower than Mormonism was Islam, with just 15 percent feeling favorably toward it and 46 percent unfavorably

Asked how much they know about Mormonism, it becomes clear that a large portion of the public is uninformed about the faith. Just 10 percent said they knew a great deal about the religion while 32 percent said they knew some. Again, only Islam was less known, with six percent claiming a great deal of knowledge about it and 33 percent claim some understanding.

Does this avalanche of polling data mean that Romney's candidacy is doomed less than 24 hours after it officially began?

No.

But the numbers suggest that Romney will have to explain to Republican primary voters what he believes and why he believes it. Romney avoided an extended discussion of his religious belief during his announcement speech Tuesday, saying simply: "I believe in God and I believe that every person in this great country, and every person on this grand planet, is a child of God."

He'll need to go much deeper if he hopes to erase the doubts that clearly exist among a substantial part of the GOP electorate, especially as he faces what now appears to be a crowded primary field.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 14, 2007; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Parsing the Polls  
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