Mitt, the Mormons, and the Democrats’ Mountain West Strategy

December 29, 2006 | 27 comments
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The Democratic electoral strategy for 2008 and Mitt Romney’s candidacy might just give Mormons more political influence than they will ever have again in a presidential election. The combination of the two will certainly give the McCain campaign a bad case of indigestion.

For many Democrats, the 2006 election answered one long-running controversy: to win nationally, can the Democrats ignore the South? Answer: yes, if they can win in the West. Although some campaign strategists had argued that working class southern whites could be convinced to vote for a Democrat, the party made little progress with those voters. Instead, several victories in the Mountain West underscored the viability of the Democrats’ New West strategy. In the run-up to 2008, voters in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Montana have become very important to Democratic hopes for 2008. These are all states with sizable and in some cases influential Mormon minorities. (Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho, with their larger Mormon populations, seem solidly Republican for now.)

Which leaves John McCain in a bind. When it comes time to put the Romney campaign on ice, ridiculing Romney’s religion will be an obvious tactic, and one that will resonate with a lot of voters for a lot of different reasons. With the right attack ads, it shouldn’t be too hard to blast a nasty poll through the side of Romney’s campaign. But can John McCain–or whoever the Republican nominee turns out to be–afford for the Mormons of Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Montana (32 electoral votes total) to stay home in November? Does it sound like a good idea to alienate an important contingent of reliable Republican voters in key states? Can he be sure he won’t need that 1-2% of votes on election night? Mormons are not saps. They might largely agree with Republican positions on social issues, but they won’t vote for someone whose campaign, for example, appears to ridicule the Prophet. Of course, Mormons have no allergies to political access, either. McCain could probably patch things up between the primaries and the general election by firing a few staff members and holding a few heart-to-heart chats with an apostle or two. That is, McCain could do that if some Republican voters weren’t already suspicious about him. The more effective an anti-Mormon anti-Romney strategy is in the primaries, the more perilous the consequences of a high-profile reconciliation with the Mormons before the general election. Maybe the numbers do add up, and the electoral calculus will tell McCain to toss the Mormons overboard. My guess is that there’s too much uncertainty involved to make McCain happy about any of his options.

On the other hand, McCain’s dilemma could become the Democrat nominee’s problem if Romney wins the nomination. I know little about Romney, although in some ways he seems like the type of talented, experienced, moderate Republican candidate I could imagine myself voting for under other circumstances, someone like I thought I was voting for back when I was a reliable Republican voter. To introduce an argument a fortiori (and not to invite a debate about the merits of various political parties), let me note that in my considered opinion the overiding concern for the 2008 election is that a Republican not be elected. I’d like to vote for the winning candidate for the first time in my life. I am not a potential Romney voter.

But.

I have to ask myself, Who’s more likely to ignore the big, fat target presented by Romney’s religion: John McCain, one of Romney’s Republican colleagues, or a Democratic opponent who can already rule out much Mormon support? Is a Republican or a Democratic campaign more likely to include staff members who can say what’s fair ball and what’s deep into the mine fields of unfamiliar religious sensibilities? Which party is more likely to initiate or tolerate a tasteless bit of Mormon bashing for political gain? As much as I want to vote for a winning Democratic candidate, I think the chances aren’t good that any Democratic campaign running against Romney can go the next 22 months without a clumsy bit of electioneering that hits me in the gut. After that happens, I’ll have only best wishes for the Democratic revolution, but they’ll have to do it without me. Sorry, but it’s a sensitive issue for me. The last ballot I saw had about five more options after the Democratic and Republican parties, and I’m willing to take a whirl on anyone who doesn’t insult my religion. How many Mormon Republican voters would similarly turn their backs on a candidate whose primary campaign once ran a tasteless anti-Mormon commercial or two?

When this is all over, we might end up envying the political strategy of the Old Order Amish. What seems fairly certain even at this stage of the race, however, is that Romney’s religion plus the new electoral significance of the Mountain West equals a huge headache for campaign consultants everywhere, because it’s too early to know for sure if Mormons are or aren’t politically powerful enough in the current electoral calculus to require courting–or not offending–for crassly political purposes.

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27 Responses to Mitt, the Mormons, and the Democrats’ Mountain West Strategy

  1. Tatiana on December 29, 2006 at 8:17 am

    I think it’s sad that none of us have any hope that there might exist a candidate who would make such choices based on principle rather than election strategy. I think I will be perverse and hope for that, anyway.

  2. Keith Mines on December 29, 2006 at 8:32 am

    Give Mitt a Chance
    Keith W. Mines
    December 2006

    On to the next election, and as a Latter-day Saint with pioneer handcart roots this bit about Mitt Romney being unelectable because he is a Mormon bugs the heck out of me. Forty three percent of American voters according to a recent poll would never consider voting for a Mormon candidate? Can that be right? Mormons participate in every aspect of our civic life, fight well and willingly when called upon, and their religion is hardly an issue in daily life until the drinks are served, and then they come through as the designated driver. Is this the country of Kandahar, or Carolina? I say give Mitt a chance.

    If folks are to scrutinize religion and cultural background in choosing political leaders, I would hope they do so over issues that would play out in the public square, not those that play out in chapels, cathedrals, synagogues, or mosques. On this note, Mormons are in general socially and politically conservative. This is not by authoritarian dictat, but rather through a shared understanding of government, society, and man’s relationship to his fellow man. They tend toward libertarianism and small government, a restrained but capable national defense, low taxes, high levels of education, are skeptical about social engineering at home or abroad, charitable towards those with real needs and impatient with slackers. But these generalities tend to play out differently across regions, generations, and families, so an individual Mormon candidate would, I hope, be scrutinized on his or her individual merits.

    To the extent the distinctives of Mormonism would matter, I would also hope that they would be thought through, and not simply a tribal reaction to a culture that is perceived as different. Some things could even be perceived as more positive than negative. Here are a few things to think about:

    1. Mormons are Better Prepared than the Boy Scouts: Heard of Katrina, Rita, Wilma? Mormons were way ahead of these bad girls. For over a hundred years Mormons have been counseled to stock food and water and learn the rudiments of family preparedness. Mitt could share some of these principles with the nation, and in the meantime the personal food supply he brings to the White House will allow him to hunker down for a year + during an emergency.

    2. Mormons Don’t Like Debt: Just after the family preparedness talks, LDS leaders have decried the evils of debt. Mitt doesn’t like debt, and won’t buy into the current fantasy that “deficits don’t matter.” He will be prudent in how he digs us out, but look for a Romney administration to balance the books, similar to how he sorted out the battered financing for the Salt Lake Olympics.

    3. Napoleon Dynamite is a Mormon: Why does this matter? It doesn’t really. But for those who react negatively to all things Mormon maybe it’s time to lighten up.

    4. Stephen Covey is Mormon: He doesn’t push it so as not to slow his book sales, but Stephen Covey’s 7 habits are all drawn from traditional Mormon teachings, and in fact started as a sort of LDS program for personal development (sorry, Brother Covey, if this hurts the foundation). This is the Mitt Romney that would be governing the country.

    5. Mormons are Universalists: Mormons hold to a certain institutional exclusivity, not unlike most religionists, but their basic global social framework is of a literal brotherhood of mankind. They believe in a divine spark in all men, and accept the divine in the teachings of all the great religious leaders of history. This could be increasingly interesting in a world that is tearing itself apart over ancient blood feuds.

    6. The Home Teacher in Chief: One of the core Mormon programs is for the adult members of the church to divvy up the households in a given congregation and ensure that everyone is visited once a month – check on temporal welfare, make sure they know they have a friend, deliver a short message of encouragement. In an age where disconnectedness is the bane of our existence, having a chief executive who comes from this lifestyle might also be interesting.

    7. An Aversion to Invasion: Though highly patriotic and comfortable in uniform, certainly willing to serve and recognizing the need for self-defense, Mormon teachings urge restraint in foreign affairs. Mormons tend to be intensely practical, and would not easily fall into the trap of open-ended military crusades.

    8. Stewardship vs. Ideology: As for many Americans, the days struggling on the frontier instilled in Mormons a practicality that still defines the culture. Mormons are slow to embrace ideologies, while quick to accept stewardship. Neo-cons or their retooled ideological successors would not, in a Romney administration, push aside successful businessmen and generals with their latest fantasies.

    I’m still not sure whether Mitt Romney will get my vote. I am at a minimum waiting to see if Pedro enters the race. But I would like to know that he would not be disqualified early on for the simple and honest exercise of his religious beliefs. Let’s give Mitt a chance.

    Keith Mines, a Denver native, is posted with the Foreign Service in Ottawa.

  3. RayB on December 29, 2006 at 10:01 am

    The real question here is not whether Democrats can win the west, but can Mitt win with only the south? It seems his naked political ambition is leading him to make a pact with the devil, or at least sell his Mormon soul, to the southern evangelicals, but at the expense of much of the rest of the country. One of the great virtues of Ronald Reagan is that he was consistent. He ran for the presidency for 11 years on the same platform, saying the same things to the same people. I find it odd, and perhaps stupid, that Romney is now at this very moment abandoning everything he has stood for and much of the American political center to pander to the right wing of the Republican Party. Personally, I think he will go down in flames somewhere along the way and then we can all go back to our quiet lives of obscurity.

  4. Jonathan Green on December 29, 2006 at 10:06 am

    Let me add that this will hopefully be my only contribution to the field of Romnology. I’d also like to think that this will be the only all-Romney week at Times and Seasons for the near future. While we’re at it, though, this is the right place for comments about Romney’s electability and related topics; Keith M., thanks for your thoughts. No need to clutter Russell’s thread about natural law with anyone’s predictions for the presidential primary, especially for those, like me, who have absolutely nothing non-embarrassing to say about natural law.

    Tatiana, I’d also like to think that anyone capable or making a serious bid for national office would understand that attacking an opponent’s religion, or scapegoating the group to which he belongs, is outside the bounds of acceptable American politics. Sadly, I think precedent is against you. I mean, the campaign flyer “What you should know about the Mormon Agenda for America” practically writes itself.

  5. Blake on December 29, 2006 at 11:24 am

    My question is when will LDS voters get the clue that southern evangelicals don’t like us? When will we see that the Republican party is controlled by people 43% of whom, supposedly, wouldn’t vote for an LDS candidate knowing nothing more than that s/he is LDS? Why would any of us want to be part of that party?

    Here is the bind. The numbers are roughly equal for those who label themselves as liberal. It is fairly clear to me why LDS don’t cozy up to liberals. It is hard to accept the views of those who insist that abortion on demand, gay marriage, legalized drugs etc. be decided by the judiciary because they can’t get their way in the legislative or executive branches. Why would any LDS person want to be part of that?

    The moderate wings of both parties are homes for LDS — but the radical left and radical right control the parties and the primaries. For those who would disenfranchise LDS — in America — in 2006 — we ought to have nothing but solid contempt. I would expect any American to have the same view — but 43% don’t.

    However, I believe that the lack of tolerance and sheer bigotry will backfire on those who try to exploit Romney’s religion. He ought to run if for no other reason than to expose this dark underbelly of the American political dynamic. LDS ought to be informed about those they seemingly cozy up to in the voting booth.

  6. Stephen M (Ethesis) on December 29, 2006 at 11:43 am

    For the sort of thing from the left on Mitt: http://bobquasit.livejournal.com/

  7. bbell on December 29, 2006 at 12:13 pm

    In my view Repubs have a long history of annointing an early front runner and simply going thru the motions of a competitive primary. It seems to me that unless John McCain gets sick or says something completely crazy (AKA George Allen) he is the front runner. I would say Mitt will probably fade away as will Guilani.

    Look for McCain to start appearing more and more conservative and for the press to turn on him as he appears to be wrapping up the nomination.

    As I have stated in other posts the Loony Left will oppose Romney for religious reasons in a general election. The right wing nut jobs will get a crack at him first

  8. Matt Evans on December 29, 2006 at 12:29 pm

    Jonathan, Romney’s run will surely bring out anti-Mormon charges and allegations, but I’m sure that every campaign manager knows that targeting Romney’s religion would backfire everywhere, not just Mormon strongholds. McCain and his managers know it would be stupid to have his campaign throw Mormon mud. If it’s going to happen it won’t be done by a campaign but an independent group — think Swift Handcart Veterans for Truth. Their throwing the mud will allow McCain to disavow them, condemn the ads as unfair and unAmerican, and still benefit from the doubts planted about Mitt’s religion.

  9. Lamonte on December 29, 2006 at 12:33 pm

    Thank you Keith Mines for your excellent summary of what Mormons have to offer the nation, regardless of their party affiliation. I’ve already copied it to my document file.

  10. Jonathan Green on December 29, 2006 at 12:41 pm

    Matt, I think you’re right about how the mud would be slung, or at least the slingers’ distance from the official campaign. What will be interesting to watch is McCain’s (or whoever’s) reaction: will it be quick, unequivocal condemnation, or the wink-wink “wasn’t us who said it” we saw last time?

    Bbell’s take on McCain as front runner seems the most likely scenario to me, but McCain has a bit of baggage (some suspicions among his base, loud and pround championing of an increasingly unpopular Foreign Event That We’re Not Going To Talk About) that could cause trouble for his campaign and make the primary competitive, or even clear the way for…who? Romney? I confess that I don’t see the Giuliani campaign going anywhere, and I don’t see any other serious candidates besides Romney. Stranger things have happened.

  11. MikeInWeHo on December 29, 2006 at 2:59 pm

    Hi, bbell. Your take on things seems right, except I don’t think the left would REALLY oppose him for religious reasons. Harry Reid could run for president as a moderate Democrat and would do very well, and his religion would probably be a non-issue. The Left will just exploit Mitt’s religion as a means to block him because they oppose his views. The Evangelicals might do the same in the primaries to try and block him…but if he somehow gets the nomination, I bet the Evangelical leadership will fall in line very quickly. Does anybody think the 43% would really vote for Hillary if it boiled down to Clinton Redux vs. Romney ?

  12. bbell on December 29, 2006 at 3:15 pm

    Hey Mike,

    I do think if Mitt gets the nomination that the religious right would fall in line to a degree. But the could be enough anti-mormon animus amongst traditinally repub voters in swing states like Missouri to affect his electability. I think your right that the Left will oppose him first because he is a republican but there will be a nasty anti-mormon anti-religious undertone to the opposition.

    One thing that is interesting to me is that the Repubs always seem to decide on a front-runner for the nomination and then that front-runner coasts to the nomination with no real opposition.

    MCCain looks like that front-runner right now and enjoys a solid organization, fundraising, and he has lots of fans in the press. McCain is largely distrusted by lots of Conservatives but he can show he is pro-military, and usually votes conservative on balance. The base will swing to him once he starts to wrap up the nomination

  13. John Mansfield on December 29, 2006 at 5:32 pm

    Romney’s election record in Massachusetts (one loss, one win, one forfeit) leads me to not expect much from him in the Republican primaries.

  14. MikeInWeHo on December 29, 2006 at 5:39 pm

    I’m not so sure it’s going to be a cake walk for McCain, despite the past Republican pattern you pointed out. I suspect he makes the Evangelical right just as nervous as Romney does. Quite the dilemma for them!

  15. DKL on December 29, 2006 at 6:18 pm

    I think your calculus is off. McCain has to be able to take the South for granted in order to be able to get aggressive in the Mountain West — and McCain isn’t popular in the South to start with (thanks to his attacks on Christian Conservatives in the last primary). And the number of people in the South who will find public overtures to Mormon officials to be offensive far outweighs the number of Mormons who will stay home because McCain attacks Mormonism. Mormons just won’t enter into the equation as a political force, because we’re not a political force.

    Count on McCain to attack Mormons while never even making token overtures to reconcile with Mormon leaders. Also, count on the fact that McCain will not win the nomination. Aside from the fact that he’s not generally palatable to Republican primary voters, he simply lacks the temperament and the discipline. McCain does well for a while, and then self-destructs under pressure, just as he did in the Carolina primaries against Bush.

    I was never a believer that Romney had a shot before, but since Senator Allen of Virginia lost his seat (and therefore his viability as a primary candidate) Romney has a very good chance.

  16. Clark on December 29, 2006 at 6:20 pm

    Blake, I’m not sure as many southern Evangelicals hate Mormons as you suggest. There’s no doubt that there are some. (I went to the south on my mission after all and saw it) But I think we, as Mormons, tend to over-exaggerate these things.

  17. Kevin Barney on December 29, 2006 at 7:27 pm

    I like Romney a lot. But I agree with RayB #3 that the courting of the far right is problematic and unseemly, even if necessary for one to gain the Republican nomination. I like the moderate Mitt, not the conservative cutout Mitt. And if Obama runs, I would probably support him.

    I’m not very political at all, but it will be interesting even for me to see how this plays out.

  18. Russell Arben Fox on December 29, 2006 at 7:39 pm

    An interesting political post, Jonathan. One political sciencey observation: much of these sorts of issues arise because of frontloading. Our presidential election system requires candidates to run not so much national campaigns as “50-state” campaigns–except not really, since not all of those states are equal either in terms electoral votes or influence on media perceptions and consequently interest group-giving. Navigating the early primary season while building momentum, and doing so in a way that won’t hurt you later on, is especially difficult, and the questionable influence of Mormon voters on either the Republican primaries or the general election in a few now-possibly-toss-up states in the Mountain West, makes things even more crazy. In the case of McCain vs. Romney, consider the line-up; in the first month he has:

    January 21, 2008 – Iowa
    January 28, 2008 – New Hampshire
    February 5, 2008 – Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, West Virginia
    February 5, 2008 – Florida, Michigan
    February 12, 2008 – Tennessee
    February 16, 2008 – Louisiana
    February 19, 2008 – Minnesota, Wisconsin

    So the same week that McCain, or someone else, is campaigning in a state where anti-Mormonism might presumably work (North and South Carolina, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Alabama), they will also be campaigning in Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, where it wouldn’t. I sure don’t envy McCain’s campaign manager!

  19. Brad Kramer on December 29, 2006 at 11:02 pm

    I think it’s much less likely that the Democratic nominee will come after Romney’s Mormonism than McCain because I don’t see Obama doing it and any of the other candidates run the risk of reinforcing stereotypes that liberals hate religion. Then again, McCain also has some of the same baggage. The only anti-Mormon mud slinging that we’re likely to see will come from someone who won’t be mistaken as anti-religious as a consequence–a hardliner conservative dark horse during the primaries. If McCain feels like he’s sufficiently cast off the anto-religious cloak, he might try it, but I don’t think it’s likely beyond that. I think Romney’s problems will come from his being manifestly willing to make curiously providentially-timed changes in his fundamental beliefs on any number of salient issues. Though it is possible that an attack that emphasizes his almost laughable flipfloppery will connect it with his loyalty to his “authoritarian” church.

  20. Chad too on December 30, 2006 at 4:10 am

    Having been immersed in Carolina Culture for the last dozen years doesn’t make me all-knowing about things Southern, but what experience I have had leads me to think that the worst thing the McCain camp could do is make a big issue about Romney’s religion because it would give Romney a chance to defend himself. If McCain says nothing, then the Ed-Decker driven picture of Mormonism in the minds of Southern voters goes unchallenged. If that happens, Romney loses in the South.

    Confrontation is rarely the Southerner’s way of doing things. Good-ol’-boy networks are seldom the result of organized this-is-our-point-of-view planning. They’re made with a wink and a nod and the understanding that, though they can’t throw all y’all (

  21. John Taber on December 30, 2006 at 11:39 am

    Now when it comes to institutional religion OTOH, the Southern Baptist Convention seems to want to set off a few flares when we do something significant, like open a new temple. Such was the case with the Raleigh temple in 1999, which I lived across the street from at the time. The nearest Baptist church, there at the Apex town crossroads handed out literature, and took out a couple of ads in local (small-town) papers, saying that “Mormons aren’t Christian”, etc. Best I can tell, though, it was met with a collective shrug.

    That church had that year built an addition to their building, that had more floor space than the temple.

    If any candidate speaks at Bob Jones University, Brother Romney will have a golden opportunity to say, “I couldn’t even step foot on campus, or enroll my children there if I wanted to. How dare you . . .” Southern Republican primary voters won’t give two hoots, but it will get national attention like nothing else.

  22. Jorge on December 31, 2006 at 5:16 am

    Obama 08

  23. California Condor on November 2, 2007 at 8:05 pm

    Well, now McCain is done. Romney’s prospects are as good as ever. I suppose the question now is: would the Clinton campaign machine start an anti-Mormon whisper campaign if Hillary goes against Mitt?

  24. truebluethru\'n\'thru on November 2, 2007 at 8:27 pm

    Re 24: Yes.

    Right now prognosticators foresee Rudy’s being able to hang on. Maybe it is the case that the combination of “feeling patriotic” about one’s vote–that is, re Rudy’s association with 9/11 (and this despite anti-Rudy folks’ resentment of his having capitalized on it)–while also “endorsing Rudy’s competence” will end up trumping “endorsing Mitt’s competence,” alone. And, if early polls mean little, then Mitt’s competetive position in places he’s advertised heavily in may be chipped away at when Rudy’s and the rest of the field begin to more aggressively advertise.

    On the other hand, maybe Mitt’s “strenth” etc. mantra garners enough of the “patriotism” factor to go along with his natural affability and leadership skills to enable him to prevail, in the end, despite his minority religious status.

  25. Ray on November 2, 2007 at 10:32 pm

    Since evangelicals in general and southern evangelicals in particular vote in unison according to the advice of their leaders more than any other segment in our country, I think Romney is doing exactly the right thing by avoiding a “Mormon speech” while he courts the influential evangelical leaders – and continues to pick up their endorsements. (BTW, part of me would hate to have to write that speech, since any perceived mis-statement is guaranteed to derail the campaign; another part salivates at the thought, since a perfect one could clinch a nomination.) I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he gives that speech shortly before the first primaries.

  26. truebluethru\'n\'thru on November 3, 2007 at 7:09 pm

    Hmm…OK. Butstill, with Romney’s competition from Thompson and Huckabee, how will he truly end up garnering a true lion’s share of the politically-inclined Evangelical leaders’ endorsements, then, for such a game plan to work then?

    Then, regarding his “Mormon speech”: Romney, in a way, must essentially give a version of it each and every time he mounts the stump. That is, it would simply be his “values” speech–how Romney judges positions and appointees by certain values, explaining what his values are. When it comes time to give “This-is-the-governor’s-‘Mormon-speech’!” speech, he would highlight what’s worked within the values context from the generic stump, freshening it with something of timely substance (I don’t know: what?) about his specific brand of faith (…or at least adding a few new soundbites to keep the media alert!)

  27. truebluethru\'n\'thru on November 3, 2007 at 7:09 pm

    Hmm…OK. Butstill, with Romney’s competition from Thompson and Huckabee, how will he truly end up garnering a true lion’s share of the politically-inclined Evangelical leaders’ endorsements, then, for such a game plan to work then?

    Then, regarding his “Mormon speech”: Romney, in a way, must essentially give a version of it each and every time he mounts the stump. That is, it would simply be his “values” speech–how Romney judges positions and appointees by certain values, explaining what his values are. When it comes time to give “This-is-the-governor’s-‘Mormon-speech’!” speech, he would highlight what’s worked within the values context from the generic stump, freshening it with something of timely substance (I don’t know: what?) about his specific brand of faith (…or at least adding a few new soundbites to keep the media alert!)