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 Democratsâ€™ 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 werenâ€™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.
I have to ask myself, Who’s more likely to ignore the big, fat target presented by Romney’s religion: John McCain, one of Romneyâ€™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.