Panel at Notre Dame discusses role of religion in Romney campaign

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Mitt Romney’s Mormonism was a significant reason why his campaign for the presidency struggled against incumbent President Barack Obama, but it was far from the main factor in his eventual defeat in the 2012 election, according to a panel of experts in a discussion on politics and religion at the University of Notre Dame.

Notre Dame political science professors David Campbell and Vincent Phillip Munoz joined with UVU President Matt Holland to discuss the importance of Romney’s faith at a public discussion after the three coordinated extensive quantitative research about Americans’ attitude toward the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for more than a year, dating back to before the election itself.

Notre Dame political science professor David Campbell, a Mormon, speaks with The Universe about the role of religion in public life. Photo by Sarah Hill
Notre Dame political science professor David Campbell, a Mormon, speaks with The Universe about the role of religion in public life. Photo by Sarah Hill

The three experts found that Americans generally tie their political and religious views very close together, and that left-leaning voters were much less likely to view Romney’s Mormonism favorably.

Holland, a Church member who taught political science at BYU earlier in his career and is the son of Elder Jeffery R. Holland, pointed out that Romney did better than John McCain among evangelicals nationwide. Contrary to popular perception, Romney garnered an entire 6 percent more of that constituency than did McCain: 79 percent to 73 percent. But the BYU alumnus missed out on some key evangelical votes in swing states such as Ohio.

“I believe his religion was a factor, not the factor,” Holland said. “The (election) was a lot more complicated and subtle than at first blush.”

Despite extensive media coverage of evangelicals’ concerns about a Mormon president, liberal Americans on the whole were, in fact, the group most wary of the ways in which Romney’s religion might have affected his presidency. Democrats who viewed Mormonism positively were very likely to vote for Romney, but “there just weren’t very many of them” who fit into both of those categories, according to Campbell, a BYU graduate and currently the only LDS faculty member at Notre Dame.

“Whether or not you had a good feeling toward Mormons, (the study) tended to depend heavily on which party you belonged to,” Campbell said. “We saw a tight connection between how people perceive their politics and how they perceive religions.”

The strong correlation is an irony because there is scant historical precedent to cause Americans to worry about religious interference, according to Munoz, the author of multiple books about the expression of faith in the public square.

“The person’s religion hasn’t shown to (dramatically) affect how they act as president,” Munoz said. 

It’s likely several constituencies voted for Romney in greater numbers precisely because of his Mormonism, but this boost did not necessarily have a large impact on his electoral votes because they were concentrated in states that already typically vote Republican, according to the study.

“That’s part of the story that didn’t really get told during the 2012 campaign,” Campbell said. “(But in those states) it also didn’t hurt that he had an ‘R’ next to his name.”

Data gathered under the direction of the panel suggested other factors played a much larger role in Romney’s eventual defeat. The Republican primary election was a disaster for Romney in terms of consuming much of the campaign’s time, money and rhetorical focus, Holland said.

“One social conservative would get down and another would pop up. There had to be someone other than Romney,” Holland said. “(Romney’s campaign team) had spent everything defending themselves in that primary election. … It had a real drag in that campaign that I don’t think is … fully understood.”

Interestingly, despite the pitfalls of his campaign, Romney suffered the fourth narrowest popular vote defeat in terms of percentage since 1900. However, Romney lost big in the Electoral College due to narrowly losing in several swing states, including electoral giants Ohio and Florida.

“When we look at the very close margin by which he lost this campaign … we realize he almost won,” Holland said. “But he got out-campaigned (as far as) organizing … and getting out the vote.”

Panel compares Romney and JFK speeches on religion in politics

The study also analyzed Romney’s pivotal 2008 speech addressing his religion. For a frame of reference, the panel drew comparisons to President John F. Kennedy, the first and, so far, only Catholic president. The speeches had similar purposes for being given but were delivered in nearly opposite ways, according to Munoz.

Romney vigorously defended the role of religion in democracy, saying at one point that, “Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom.” Meanwhile, Kennedy took an absolutist stand on the separation of church and state without addressing the place of religious belief in public life, at one point even decrying “unconstitutional aid to parochial schools.”

Romney’s boldness about his beliefs received mixed reviews, failing to propel him to victory in the 2008 Republican primary — and by 2012 many people still held deep reservations about his beliefs. But the influence of his speech was still lauded in many religious circles, according to Munoz.

“Romney did offer valuable service to the nation in this way: he defended the role of faith in public squares,” Munoz said.

Despite his defeat, Romney had a more noticeable impact in raising the profile of Mormonism than most other Mormon celebrities combined, Campbell reported. He said members of the Church may overestimate the influence of other celebrities in comparison with the highest government position in the country.

“Mormonism may not have been (a deciding or positive net factor) for Mitt,” Campbell said. “(But) Mitt certainly affected perceptions of Mormonism.”

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