On the day before Thanksgiving, Mitt Romney received some news from the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life for which he must be truly thankful. In a survey recently completed by Pew, researchers found that while Romney's Mormon faith continues to dog him among Republican voters, those same voters will enthusiastically support him should he win the chance to square off against President Obama in the general election. In other words, if Romney can survive the GOP primaries, where his numbers continue to remain tepid, he can count on a strong backing in November 2012 from those now-indifferent voters.
As in 2008, Romney's Mormon faith continues to be a concern among the Republican Party's most important constituency: white evangelicals. In Pew's recent survey, only 17 percent of white evangelicals listed Romney as their choice to win the Republican nomination. While Romney's membership in the LDS Church certainly is not the only reason white evangelical Republicans remain resistant to his candidacy, his faith is not an insignificant factor either. Of white evangelicals polled by Pew, 53 percent characterized Mormonism as "not Christian." On the other hand, white Republicans who identify as mainline Protestants or Catholics showed far less concern about the Mormon Church's Christian identity with only 21 and 22 percent, respectively, deeming the LDS faith as "not Christian."
Not since John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960 has a candidate for the White House faced such stiff and persistent difficulties stemming from his religious faith. Like Kennedy, Romney's faith poses the largest hurdle for him not among the general American electorate, but within his own party. Also like Kennedy, Romney's challenge owes to the predominance of white evangelical voters within his party who remain skeptical of candidates who stand outside of traditional Protestantism. As I've written about before (here and here), evangelicals have a longstanding skepticism and even antipathy of Mormonism. Overcoming this evangelical resistance to Mormonism remains one of Romney's greatest challenges to securing the Republican nomination, as it did in 2008.
In 1960, Southern Baptists, who formed the backbone of the Democratic Party in the South, resisted giving their support to Kennedy. Opposition to a Catholic candidate's bid for the White House came from the highest ranks in the Southern Baptist Convention. In 1959, the SBC's president Ramsey Pollard told a newspaper reporter that Kennedy would "meet with severe opposition in many circles consonant with Baptist life." One year later, 13,000 delegates at the SBC's annual convention unanimously passed a resolution obliquely opposing Kennedy's candidacy, though it never named him specifically. Eight state Baptist conventions and every state Baptist newspaper expressed fears about electing a Catholic president. Throughout the SBC, prominent pastors like W. A. Criswell of First Baptist Dallas frequently delivered anti-Catholic sermons throughout the 1960 election cycle. Kennedy attempted to ameliorate Southern Baptist opposition to his candidacy with his speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association where he reaffirmed his belief in the separation of church and state and pledged that no religious group (in other words, the Catholic Church) would receive government funds or political preference should he win the presidency. But Kennedy's smartest move was to select one of the South's own, Lyndon Johnson of Texas, as his running mate. While many Southern Baptists left the Democratic Party to support a Republican presidential candidate for the first time that year -- a development that would continue for the next 30 years -- enough remained in the Democratic fold to ensure Kennedy's win thanks to Johnson being on the ticket.
Like Kennedy, Romney will likely seek a vice presidential running mate who will help him secure support among white evangelicals. It's hard to imagine Romney not picking an evangelical like Tim Pawlenty or his 2008 rival Mike Hucakabee to occupy the second position on the ballot. As Kennedy had to, Romney must appease the white evangelical wing that dominates his party. Once a mainstay of the Democratic Party, white evangelicals now represent the cornerstone of the GOP, and their influence is particularly powerful in the primary stage. In 2008, ABC's polling director Gary Langer found that evangelical Christians made up 44 percent of the Republicans who voted in the presidential primaries. And in 11 of the 29 states where exit polls were conducted, evangelicals comprised more than half of the Republicans voting. With three out of the first four primaries in 2012 taking place in evangelical-heavy states (Iowa, South Carolina and Florida), Romney's relationship with evangelical voters could prove critical.
While evangelical voters showed meager support in the Pew survey for Romney as a primary candidate, their promise of a rock-solid backing for him should he capture the GOP nomination is the finding Romney's campaign team is likely celebrating. Though only 17 percent of white evangelicals indicated they planned to vote for Romney at the primary stage, a whopping 91 percent revealed they'd choose Romney over Obama in the general election. Fortunately for Romney, the Pew survey also revealed that predicted white evangelical voting remains fairly distributed among the possible primary candidates, so a divided evangelical electorate may be Romney's path to the GOP nomination in 2012. If so, those Republican evangelicals appear to be ready to enthusiastically vote for Romney over Obama. Yet again, white evangelicals may provide the critical vote in determining if the second non-Protestant president takes up residence on Pennsylvania Avenue.