In the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney's Mormon faith will play an important role, but party allegiance would likely ultimately win out in a general election, according to new poll from the Pew Research Center. The report suggests that the former Massachusetts governor's faith will likely affect his performance in the primaries, particularly among white evangelical Protestants, but that even Republicans with unfavorable views of Mormonism will likely rally around him in a general election.
The poll, conducted November 9-14, shows that among all Republican and leaning-Republican voters, Romney leads all GOP candidates, at 23 percent support (4.5 percent margin of error). Businessman Herman Cain is close behind but within the margin of error, at 22 percent, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's support is at 16 percent. Romney's support is stronger (26 percent) among white mainline Protestants and white Catholics, but his support drops among white evangelical Protestants, to 17 percent, behind Cain and Gingrich.
White evangelical Protestants are also by far more likely than white mainline Protestants and white Catholics to believe—erroneously—that the Mormon religion is "not Christian," and are also more likely to say that Mormonism would deter them from voting for Romney. While 3 percent of these evangelicals say Romney's Mormon faith improves their likelihood of voting for him, 15 percent say it makes their vote less likely.
The trend is most pronounced among evangelical Tea Party supporters, says Pew Research Center Associate Director Michael Dimock. "Those evangelical Tea Partyers are overwhelmingly aware that he's Mormon," he says, and they are also "the most likely to flat-out say that they're less likely to support him because of his faith." [Check out a roundup of cartoons about Mitt Romney.]
However, should Romney win the nomination, he would likely regain much of that support. Among Republican or leaning-Republican voters, 91 percent of white evangelicals say they would vote for Romney over President Obama next year, including 79 percent who say they would back Romney "strongly." According to Dimock, antipathy toward Obama is the decisive factor here.
"The people for whom [Romney's] faith is a potential sticking point are so anti-Obama that that's the bigger factor. The very same people for whom Mormonism is maybe of some concern are the same people who most vigorously oppose Obama," he says.
Romney's faith may very well be a larger issue for him than for other Republican candidates, but his faith is still not even on the radar of many Republican voters. Of all Republican or leaning-Republican voters polled, only 56 percent know that Romney is Mormon.
According to Dimock, that proportion would undoubtedly grow if Romney won the nomination, due to increased media attention and public curiosity, but the share who take issue with his faith might not grow.
"There's another half of voters out there who if he becomes the nominee more than likely will find out about [his faith]." Whether there is a potential downside there for Romney is "hard to know definitively," Dimock adds, but the Pew poll provides some insight. "What this report suggests is people for whom it probably matters the most probably are already aware because they're politically engaged and active."
Though party may trump faith in the general election, there are still plenty of indications that Mormonism could remain a fraught topic throughout Romney's campaign. His Mormon faith stirred controversy at the Values Voters Summit in October, at which Rev. Robert Jeffress, a Texas pastor who introduced Texas Gov. and presidential candidate Rick Perry, called the Mormon Church a cult and said that Romney is not a Christian. In a June Gallup poll, 22 percent of Americans said they would not vote for their party's presidential nominee if that person happened to be a Mormon.