White Evangelicals and the “Mormon Factor”

By November 6, there weren’t many observers left who still believed conservative evangelical Protestant doubts or fears about the heterodoxy of the LDS church were going to be a problem for Mitt Romney. But it’s worth noting that a Pew survey late last week laid that particular myth emphatically to rest along three dimensions: support for Romney, intensity of support for Romney, and turnout.

Taking the last factor first, white evangelical Protestants represented exactly the same share of the electorate as in 2008 (23%), which was a higher number than in 2004 (21%), when a candidate exceedingly popular among this demographic, George W. Bush, was the Republican nominee. Support for Romney among white evangelicals matched the 2004 levels at 79%, up from 73% for John McCain in 2008.

It’s the intensity numbers, however, that are most interesting. 63% of white evangelical Protestants supporting Romney did so “strongly” (as opposed to 21% supporting him “with reservations”), pretty much the same levels as among other categories of Romney supporters with the natural exception of LDS members (84% of whom supported their co-religionist strongly). And only 9% of white evangelical Romney supporters chose the option of reporting their vote was more against Obama than for Romney.

Now there are various ways of interpreting these findings. The near-unanimous support for Romney among Christian Right leaders once the primaries ended may have been one factor. More compelling is the simple argument that conservative white evangelicals identify so strongly with the Republican Party that the identity of the nominee makes little or no difference.

My own theory is that when it comes to political activity conservative white evangelicals are motivated so strongly by cultural issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and broader controversies about “feminism,” “secularism” in public schools and in the judiciary, and alleged fears for the future of the “traditional family” that high levels of agreement with the LDS church on these arguably secular matters emphatically trump any disagreements on doctrine. A more interesting test of this hypothesis might be a GOP nominee with no significant religious affiliations–a latter-day right-wing Lincoln–who happened to agree with the Christian Right on all of its hot-button issues. But given the fairly aggressive backlash against Mormon proselytization that is evident in many conservative evangelical circles, which has recently replaced sheer ignorance of LDS tenets with a more palpable hostility, you could make the case Romney’s powerful support levels among these folk is a pretty clear sign they just don’t care about what candidates believe about God, so long as they share the attitudes of the Righteous towards their ideological enemies.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.