Poll: Romney's Mormon faith may not hurt him in TN

1:09 PM, Feb 27, 2012   |    comments
Mitt Romney greets potential voters at the Livonia and Greater Farmington Hills Area Chambers of Commerce luncheon Thursday in Farmington Hills, Mich.
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By Chas Sisk, The Tennessean

When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he famously took on what was then seen as the main drag on his candidacy - his membership in the Roman Catholic Church - in a speech that helped him win the White House.

Will former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have to make a similar declaration if he becomes the first Mormon nominated by a major party to the presidency? Probably not to win over Tennessee voters - as long as his opponent in November is President Barack Obama.

One in five registered voters in Tennessee believes Mormonism is a "cult," a description that could suggest deep-seated prejudice against Romney. But according to a recent poll by Vanderbilt University, this group is still likely to support Romney in November if he captures the Republican nomination, in part because of misgivings about his likely Democratic opponent.

"I'm not sold entirely on Mitt Romney, him being a Mormon," said Henry Crawford, 48, of Millington. "But if it came down to him and Obama, I would have to vote for him. I'm totally, 100 percent anti-Obama."

The poll found that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, himself a Catholic, leads Romney among Tennessee voters by nearly a 2-to-1 margin. But respondents interviewed by The Tennessean either didn't know or didn't care about Romney's religion, and they easily cast it aside when faced with a choice between him and Obama.

Voters who believe Mormonism is a cult tend to be more conservative, so their opposition to Obama as well might not come as a complete surprise.

But even when given a third option - sitting the election out and not voting for Romney or Obama - skeptics of Mormonism did not display a significant bias against Romney.

'Anyone but Obama'

Should he win the nomination, Romney would probably carry Tennessee, which has gone Republican in every election since 1996. But how conservatives in Tennessee view Romney's religious beliefs - and Obama's - could provide clues as to how likely they are to turn out for Romney in other parts of the country in November if he is the nominee.

Among the 303 respondents who said Mormonism is a cult, 17 percent would rather stay home in November than vote for Romney. By comparison, 13 percent of those same people said they'd stay home if the nominee were Santorum.

"It looks like it is largely an 'anyone but Obama story' with only slight variations based on who the Republican candidate might be," said Josh Clinton, a Vanderbilt political science professor and a co-director of the poll.

While pollsters from Vanderbilt found that many Tennesseans have religious objections to Mormonism, they found that even more believe that Obama is a Muslim - even though he was raised mostly in Hawaii by Protestant relatives and was a member of a Protestant church in Chicago for two decades as an adult.

Nearly 1 in 4 said Obama is Muslim. An additional 31 percent said they were uncertain of his religion. Only 39 percent gave Obama's religion as Protestant.

About 8 percent held both views - that the president is Muslim and that Mormonism is a cult. Interviews Friday with a dozen of these people offer some insight into how their beliefs would influence their choices at the voting booth.

Most favored one of the other three Republican candidates, with Santorum drawing the strongest support. Some expressed a fear similar to the one that dogged Kennedy half a century ago - that the candidate, if he won, would be forced by his religious beliefs to make choices contrary to the nation's best interest.

But if Romney were to win the nomination, none of those voters would stay home in November.

"I know a lot of Mormons, and for them, Mormons come first," said John Moreland, 68, of rural Trousdale County, before turning to a racial epithet to describe the president. "But if Romney wins it, I will vote for Romney because I will not vote for that ... Muslim."

Some separate religion, politics

Several respondents cast their objections to Romney's faith as a theological issue, not one that should disqualify him from the presidency.

"I consider Mormonism to be a cult, but I also believe that a Mormon would stand closer to what I believe than a Muslim would," said Thomas Presley, 54, a laborer and Free Will Baptist preacher from Rogersville, referring obliquely to Romney and the faith he ascribes to Obama. "It's not so much about the label you have on you than what's in a man's heart."

Familiarity with the state's population of 44,000 Mormons appeared to moderate views.

Mary Stevens, 77, of Oak Ridge, expressed concerns about Shariah law and controversial plans to build a mosque in Rutherford County.

"I really don't want to see Muslims get a foothold in this state," she said.

But she spoke fondly of a Mormon family friend, linking his views to Romney's.

"The way I look at it, his eternal destination is up to him, but I would believe he has integrity and would be honest. ... These are good principled people."

While Romney's religion may hold him back less than expected, Obama also faces a more practical problem - the weight of incumbency.

Some people who believe Obama to be Muslim said it wasn't his faith that would cause them to vote against him in November. They cited his record, blaming him for problems such as high gas prices, a slow job market and discord in Washington.

"He's done more damage to this country than anybody else," said Crawford, of Millington. "It has nothing to do with his religion. I just think he's doing a terrible job."


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