If you’ve seen those I’m a Mormon billboards around Seattle and have been following the presidential campaign, you might have concluded that there’s a coordinated effort to bring the Mormon faith (known officially as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) further into the public sphere.
Mitt Romney is certainly closer to being president than any Mormon ever has been before. In advance of the Republican caucuses this Saturday, he is in town today for a fundraising dinner in Medina and tomorrow plans a “meet and greet” in Bellevue – where Marion G. Romney, a cousin of Mitt’s father, oversaw the groundbreaking and dedication of the large LDS temple in 1978.
The Romneys go back, way back, in Mormon history. But that doesn’t mean the LDS church is pushing him as a candidate.
Randy Eastwood, a Mormon from Kenmore who is supporting Romney, says that because of an explicit church policy against endorsing candidates, there is little talk about politics amongst church members come election season.
“There’s no ‘wink wink support this guy’ or anything like that,” he says, explaining that the church encourages political participation, but doesn’t specify a party or candidate.
In fact, Eastwood, who served as mayor of Kenmore and ran against Jay Inslee for Congress in 2004, says that he received much more organized campaign support from other religious groups, despite the fact that he’s Mormon.
“Romney is definitely not, in my mind, a religious candidate,” Eastwood says. “It’s all about his position on tax and economy and growth and it has been for a long time.”
That may be true, but two of Romney’s biggest wins, in early February in Nevada and on Tuesday in Arizona, came in states with sizeable Mormon populations.
In Nevada, Romney’s most convincing victory yet, the Mormon vote was huge; 4 in 10 of the votes in support of him came from fellow Mormons. Nationally, in 2009 the Gallup polling firm identified Mormons as the most conservative religious group in the nation, by some significant distance.
Washington state has the 6th largest Mormon population in the country – more in sheer numbers than Nevada, but a smaller proportion of the overall population.
So how big of an influence will the Mormon vote have on the Republican Party caucuses this Saturday? Will it help Romney pull out a third straight campaign victory over rival Rick Santorum?
And right on cue, a Public Policy Polling survey is in the field in Washington state last night and tonight. Two weeks ago they found Santorum up by 11 percentage points over Romney. But last night, they tweeted this:
Romney with a small lead on first night of our Washington poll. Represents big change from 2 weeks ago, reflecting national shift
— PublicPolicyPolling (@ppppolls) March 1, 2012
And then they added this:
About 15% of respondents on our poll tonight were Mormons, big boost for Romney
— PublicPolicyPolling (@ppppolls) March 1, 2012
In the 2008 Washington primary Romney performed best in Southeastern Washington, the part of the state with the largest concentration of LDS church members, suggesting that Mormon voters in Washington like Romney, and perhaps more importantly, that they get out to vote.
But a closer county-by-county comparison of the results against the percentage of the county population that is Mormon belies the idea that the Mormon vote was a highly influential factor. For instance Romney won a state-high 27% in Walla Walla County, which is only 3% Mormon, but only 20% in Adams, which has the largest Mormon population proportion in the state at almost 13%.
But there is one large caveat about 2008: by the time Washington Republicans voted, Romney had been officially withdrawn from the race for almost two weeks. Not this time.
This time around, Romney is the frontrunner for the GOP nomination. This is partly because he’s very popular with members of his church: according to a recent Pew Research poll 86% have a favorable impression of him – compared to just 22% who view fellow Mormon, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, favorably. And some of the prejudices against Mormons held by Americans may be on the decline, at least in presidential politics.
The I’m a Mormon ad campaign can’t have hurt either, although the church has explicitly avoided running the ads in any early primary states to quell perceptions that it was meant to influence the elections.
“In the past 50 years we’ve done quite a bit to publicize who we are and what we believe in, and I think we’ve done a good job,” says Judith Rinehart, a member of the LDS church who lives in Queen Anne.
“We’re your friends, we’re your neighbors and now there happens to be a political candidate who is LDS.”
But Mormon support for Romney is by no means monolithic. Rinehart hasn’t fully formed her opinion of him yet, but she says she doesn’t plan to attend the caucus Saturday and in the end she’ll probably vote for Obama.
It sounds like the LDS church won’t try to persuade her otherwise. But whether other Mormons make the same candidate choice could be decisive Saturday.