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Did Anti-Mormonism Cost Mitt Romney the 2012 Election?

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Much attention was given last year by pundits, journalists, and academics alike as to how Mitt Romney's Mormon faith might affect his chances at winning the White House in 2012. Now that nearly a year has passed since voters decided the election in Barack Obama's favor, we can examine more thoroughly just how individual attitudes toward Mormons and Mormonism may have contributed to Mitt Romney's electoral defeat.

The 2012 American National Election Study surveyed over 6,000 Americans about their political attitudes and behavior and included a number of questions about attitudes toward Mormonism. For example, survey respondents were asked to indicate their feelings toward a variety of people and groups on a 0-100 scale (0 indicating very unfavorable/cold feelings and 100 indicating very favorable/warm feelings). This is called a "feeling thermometer" question. When asked to rate their feelings about Mormons, nearly half of respondents gave a score of "50," with most of the remainder falling somewhere between 30 and 70.

On another question, 51.5 percent of Americans correctly identified that Mormonism is a Christian religion, while 48.5 percent of respondents reported that they thought that Mormonism is not a Christian religion. Respondents were also asked how many Mormons they knew personally. Fifty-three percent of survey respondents indicated that they did not know any Mormons personally, another 13 percent said they knew only one, and 23 percent said they knew somewhere between 2-9 Mormons personally.

Finally, survey respondents were asked how much commonality they perceived between Mormon beliefs and their own. Their responses: 39 percent "nothing at all," 33 percent "a little," 21 percent "a moderate amount," 4 percent "a lot," and 3 percent "a great deal."

These results suggest that despite the aggressive missionary program and public relations campaign on the part of the Mormon church, most Americans don't know any Mormons, perceive very little in common with them, and feel, at best, ambivalently toward them. Apparently, the perceived "other-ness" of Mormonism is alive and well in the American public.

The natural question to ask, of course, is if and how these ambivalent attitudes toward Mormons affected the election outcomes. Could they have been the decisive factor in Mitt Romney's defeat?

Using a logistic regression statistical estimation procedure, I analyzed how individual-level attitudes toward Mormons affected the likelihood that someone would vote either for or against Romney in the 2012 general election. This procedure estimates the effect of a single variable (attitudes toward Mormons and Mormonism) on another variable (likelihood of voting for Romney), statistically controlling for a host of other factors including political ideology, demographics, and socioeconomic status. In these analyses, I used the same four Mormon attitude questions that were discussed above. The findings include:

  • Republicans who do not consider Mormons to be Christian were about 5 percent less likely to vote for Romney than Republicans who do. Additional analysis revealed that while a few of these Republicans opted to vote for Obama or vote third-party, the majority decided simply to stay home and not vote at all.
  • Democrats who think Mormons are not Christian were 2.5 percent less likely to vote for Romney than Democrats who do. This should be considered, though, in light of the fact that only about 7 percent of Democrats voted for Romney in the first place.
  • I also examined the effect of individual feelings towards Mormons (the "feeling thermometer" measure), perceptions of shared religious beliefs with Mormons, and the number of Mormons respondents knew personally. None of these variables affected the likelihood of voting for Romney among Republicans, after controlling for other relevant factors (demographics, political opinions, socioeconomic status, etc.).

It appears that most attitudes toward Mormons did not affect the likelihood of voting for Romney one way or another, with the exception of one key factor: whether or not a voter considers Mormons to be Christian. These results suggest that about 1 out of every 20 Republicans decided to stay home instead of turning out to vote for their party's nominee because they don't perceive Mormons as Christian.

Was this enough to cost Romney the election? An extremely rough "back of the envelope" estimation: Romney received about 61 million votes total. Increasing his vote total by 5 percent would have given him about 64 million votes. Given that Barack Obama received 66 million votes, Romney still would have lost the popular vote by 2 million votes which translates into roughly a 49 percent to 51 percent loss, a difference of about 2 percent from his actual result of 47 percent of the vote. (It should be noted that this is a tentative and generous estimate that makes a number of overly-simplistic assumptions. In reality, the overall effect was very likely smaller.)

It's interesting to note that research has also shown that Barack Obama lost many votes in the 2008 (and also probably 2012) election due to racial prejudice (see here, here, here, here, and here, e.g.). And there is further evidence that these votes were lost predominantly from Democrats and Independents (Republicans with racial prejudice were not going to vote for Obama in the first place). In a parallel way, most of Romney's lost votes came from members of his own party.

The political science explanation is that Mitt Romney lost the election because he was the challenger in an election where the economic and foreign policy conditions were marginally favorable to the incumbent. While I have provided evidence that Romney very likely did lose some (mostly Republican) votes as a result of negative attitudes toward his Mormon faith, this was ultimately not the decisive factor in the outcome of the election.