stuck in the middle

Study: Romney’s ‘Religion Problem’ Is Overblown

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses the Associated Builders and Contractors National Board of Directors meeting at the Arizona Biltmore February 23, 2012 in Phoenix, Arizona. Romney is campaigning ahead of the Michigan and Arizona primaries that will be held on February 28.
Mitt. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

A pair of political researchers determined through a poll conducted online that Mitt Romney’s purported “religion problem” isn’t really a problem at all. To the contrary, Matthew Chingos of Brookings and Michael Henderson of the University of Mississippi found (with a grain of salt) that by presenting  respondents with information about Mormon doctrine and its similarity to traditional Christian doctrine, conservatives were actually more likely to support him. “Our results should not be taken as definitive, particularly because they are not based on a nationally representative sample,” the researchers wrote. “But they do suggest that concerns over Mitt Romney’s ‘religion problem’ have been overblown.”

Yet as recently as this past weekend, Romney gave a commencement speech to an evangelical audience at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and didn’t say “Mormon” once, as Frank Rich wrote, still not realizing that his avoidance of his Mormon faith makes him appear as if he’s hiding something. So will this one study change Romney’s approach?

Researchers gave respondents informational prompts about Mitt Romney, ranging from a simple note about his Republican affiliation and political aspirations to this one: “Mitt Romney, a Mormon, is seeking the Republican nomination to run for president against Democrat Barack Obama this fall. The Mormon Church believes that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the Bible is the word of God.”

Henderson and Chingos concluded in part: “First, among conservatives, mentioning Romney’s Mormon religion actually increases his support by 19 percentage points … 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.”

The researchers also acknowledge that the supposed religion problem is “long on speculation and short on evidence.” The evidence includes a June 2011 Gallup poll finding that the majority of Americans say they would vote for their party’s nominee for president in 2012 if that candidate were Mormon, while 22 percent would not; 22 percent of Republicans said they would, as well as 19 percent of Independents.

But now there’s this study, suggesting that in the context of an election where he will be juxtaposed with a liberal incumbent who some consider a faux-Christian, Romney actually has no reason to worry. Rather, he might have voters to gain if he comes out of the closet with his religious convictions.

Study: Romney’s ‘Religion Problem’ Is Overblown