November 23, 2011

New Poll on Religion and the Election 2012: Romney’s Mormon Faith Likely a Factor in Primaries, Not in a General Election

Washington, D.C. — A new national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that white evangelical Protestants — a key element of the GOP electoral base — are more inclined than the public as a whole to view Mormonism as a non-Christian faith. And this view is linked to opinions about Mitt Romney: Republicans who say Mormonism is not a Christian religion are less likely to support Romney for the GOP nomination and offer a less favorable assessment of him generally.

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But there is no evidence that Romney’s Mormon faith would prevent rank-and-file Republicans, including white evangelicals, from coalescing around him if he wins the GOP nomination. Rather, the same Republicans who may have doubts about Romney’s faith are among the most vehement opponents of Barack Obama. Fully 91% of white evangelical Republican voters say they would back Romney over Obama in a general election matchup, and 79% would support Romney strongly. Overall, white evangelicals would be among the strongest Romney supporters if he is the GOP nominee challenging Obama next fall.

The new poll, conducted Nov. 9-14 among 2,001 adults, including 1,576 registered voters, also explores the public’s attitudes toward Mormonism. It finds that many Americans continue to see the Mormon faith as unfamiliar and different. Half say they know little or nothing about Mormonism; half say it is a Christian religion while a third say it is not; and roughly two-thirds believe Mormonism is “very different” from their own beliefs. There has been virtually no change in these impressions over the past four years.

According to the survey, about half of all voters, and 60% of evangelical Republicans, know that Romney is a Mormon. The former Massachusetts governor’s religion has implications for his nomination run but not for the general election, should he be nominated as his party’s standard bearer. In the race for the GOP nomination, Romney trails Herman Cain by nine points (26% to 17%) among white evangelical Republican and Republican-leaning voters. Romney leads among white mainline Protestant Republicans (26% to 17% over Cain) and runs about even with Cain among white Catholic Republican voters (26% Romney, 23% Cain).

The survey also finds:

  • When asked what one word best describes their impression of the Mormon religion, most Americans either have no opinion or offer relatively neutral words like different, conservative, Christian or Utah. Nearly a quarter (24%) give assessments that are negative in tone. Overall, cult is the most frequently used word; other negative terms include polygamy, restrictive, strange and misguided. An additional 18% offer positive words such as good, dedicated, devout, faithful and honest.
  • As Republican and Republican-leaning voters evaluate Romney, very few say his faith is a factor. Just 8% say Romney’s religion makes them less likely to vote for him; 44% say it would not make a difference. Among white evangelical Republican voters, however, 15% say Romney’s religion would make them less likely to support him.
  • While Romney trails Cain slightly among white evangelical Republicans, he also draws less support among Republican and Republican-leaning voters who agree with the Tea Party. Romney is weakest among GOP voters who fall into both of these groups — white evangelicals who agree with the Tea Party. Just 11% of these voters support Romney for the GOP nomination, while more than three times as many (39%) back Cain.
  • As was the case throughout George W. Bush’s presidency, more Americans currently say the Republican Party (43%) is friendly to religion than say that about the Democratic Party (30%). But significantly fewer see the GOP as friendly to religion than did so during the Bush years.

The full report is available on the Pew Forum’s website, as part of the online resource. This Web feature, Religion & Politics 2012, which includes religious biographies of the 2012 presidential candidates, will be updated throughout the 2011-2012 election season with news, information and data relevant to the role of religion in politics.

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The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life conducts surveys, demographic analyses and other social science research on important aspects of religion and public life in the U.S. and around the world. As part of the Washington-based Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, nonadvocacy organization, the Pew Forum does not take positions on any of the issues it covers or on policy debates.