LM Otero / Associated Press
Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Mitt Romney’s losses Tuesday in a string of primary elections in the South likely stand as final proof that many evangelical Christians were unwilling to overlook his Mormon faith, say religious and political observers who analyzed the vote.
Exit polls showed that more than 60 percent of Republican voters in Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia identified themselves as evangelical or born again Christians. In those states, Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, received about four in 10 of their votes. Arizona Sen. John McCain placed second in evangelical support in Alabama and Tennessee, splitting the remaining vote with Romney in Georgia.
“I think there’s a lesson: No Mormon should ever consider running for president in the Republican Party,” said Alan Wolfe, an expert in religion and politics at Boston College. “The evidence from the South speaks volumes.”
A Pew Research Center poll this week found Huckabee’s supporters divided in their view of Romney, with 41 percent holding an unfavorable view.
“The guy ran as a conservative in a time of economic difficulty,” Wolfe said. “It’s really difficult to explain why he came in third in so many Southern states without making reference to his religion.”
Among some evangelicals, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is considered a fringe religion. Evangelicals have deep theological differences with the Mormon Church. Most don’t view the faith as Christian. And many still connect the religion with the polygamist lifestyle — despite a church ban on polygamy in 1890.
A nationwide Pew poll in August found that when asked to describe Mormonism in a word, respondents with negative opinions of the religion most often used the words “polygamy” and “cult.” The survey also found that although 53 percent of the public expresses a favorable opinion of Mormons, three in 10 Americans say they do not believe Mormons are Christians, and another 17 percent say they are unsure.
Romney’s campaign downplayed his Southern losses Wednesday, pointing instead to the candidate’s seven wins, including Colorado and Minnesota, battleground states in the general election.
“If there’s one thing Super Tuesday made clear, it’s that conservatives are not coalescing firmly behind Sen. McCain and Gov. Huckabee,” spokesman Alex Burgos said.
Ryan Erwin, a Nevada political consultant who served as an adviser to Romney’s Nevada campaign, noted that Romney won both the Mormon and evangelical votes in the caucuses here last month. Each group made up a quarter of the Nevada Republican electorate. Still, Romney was the only Republican who campaigned here in a serious way.
Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics at Emory University in Atlanta and co-author of “Divided America,” said Romney’s faith was only part of the Super Tuesday story. “It’s tough for Romney when he’s competing against a Baptist minister,” he said. “But it’s very hard to say that’s what really did him in.”
As a former governor of Massachusetts, Romney was a “cultural outsider” and faced issues of credibility in the South, Black said.
Still, Romney’s candidacy sparked a national discussion about religion and politics not seen since John F. Kennedy’s campaign in 1960. Kennedy addressed the issue directly by speaking about his Catholicism to a group of Protestants in Houston. Romney gave a speech about his beliefs in December, vowing that the Mormon church would not run the White House if he were elected.
Religious and political observers had been calling on Romney to make the speech for months, but Wolfe, the Boston College professor, said the Southern vote showed the timing hardly mattered. “It sounds harsh to accuse voters of religious bigotry, but looking at the results, the obstacles were overwhelming,” he said.
Those obstacles first announced themselves in Iowa and then in South Carolina, where 60 percent of voters described themselves as evangelicals. Huckabee won a plurality of the vote in both contests.
The issue of Romney’s faith resurfaced last week when he suspended campaigning to attend the funeral of Mormon church leader Gordon Hinckley in Salt Lake City.
To be sure, Romney was not without evangelical support.
Mark DeMoss, an evangelical public relations consultant who represents many conservative Christian groups, said he reached out last year to help Romney with his ”evangelical problem.”
DeMoss arranged meetings for the candidate with high-profile evangelical leaders, the first of which occurred in October at the governor’s mansion in Boston. Among the attendees was the Rev. Jerry Falwell. The meeting, DeMoss said, was followed by a gathering of about 200 church leaders and Christian broadcasters in Orlando, Fla.
DeMoss himself appealed to evangelicals, writing on the Web site of The Politico last year: “For years, evangelicals have been keenly interested to know whether a candidate shared their faith. I am now more interested in knowing that a president represents my values than I am that he or she shares my theology.”
Last week he implored readers of the National Review, a conservative magazine, to examine the candidates’ qualifications and competence for the presidency.
But many evangelical leaders couldn’t see beyond the prospect of electing one of their own, he said Wednesday. Although DeMoss said the voting Tuesday was more a reflection of evangelicals’ attraction to Huckabee than an explicit rejection of Romney’s faith, he acknowledged the latter played a role.
“What’s troubling about this is that we don’t apply that standard itself to anything else in life,” DeMoss said. “I don’t think we should apply that narrow and limited of a test to something as important as the president of the United States. And I see it happening all the time. I hear it every day.”
That said, DeMoss took heart in even the small level of Romney’s evangelical support in the South. “I’m more encouraged than discouraged, but the way things went Tuesday shows how steep the hill really was.”