In my post below, I describe the “gaping holes” in the polling data that purports to demonstrate that 37% of Americans would not vote for a Mormon for president. As is often the case, the media is following the splashy initial headlines with follow-up stories that provide additional details.
Well, it turns out that one of my predictions below was dead-on. The political group most likely to reject a Mormon candidate is liberal Democrats (50% say they could not support a Mormon candidate). Yet there is also a high percentage of Republicans (including frequent church attenders) who indicate that they could not support a Mormon. I believe, however, there is an important distinction between these two groups.
First, the liberal Democrats. Their opposition is almost certainly policy based, not necessarily religion-based. They also indicate a high level of opposition to evangelical Christians. To the liberal Democrat, “Mormon” or “evangelical Christian” are code words for a person who is pro-life, opposed to same-sex marriage, and (more than likely) supportive of the war in Iraq. As a result, they become the enemy…one of those fundamentalist, bigoted inhabitants of red-state “Jesusland.”
The opposition of the second group, conservative Republicans (including conservative evangelicals), is not policy based. It cannot be. In fact, there is virtually no daylight between evangelical and Mormon positions on the major social issues. Consequently, I read the poll (as applied to conservative evangelicals) as a kind of “all other things being equal” religious preference list and is therefore of virtually no importance.
Why? Well, all other things are never equal. In fact, if you look at the recent historical record, evangelicals have rejected the “most Christian” candidates (just ask Pat Robertson, Alan Keyes, and Gary Bauer) in favor of candidates who are (1) socially conservative; and (2) electable. Moreover, evangelicals have pursued this strategy in spite of the fact that some of their favorite candidates have had flaws that “all other things being equal” would have disqualified them from contention.
Imagine a poll that asks the following: Rank in order the candidates that you would favor in the upcoming presidential race:
A devout Southern Baptist
A former substance abuser
A former seminary student
A divorced movie actor
In response to that poll question, the typical evangelical would probably rank the Southern Baptist first, the seminary student second, and there would be a real question as to whether a divorced actor ranked above or below a former substance abuser. Yet we all know that evangelical support was decisive in divorced actor Ronald Reagan’s victory over Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter and was also decisive in former drunk George Bush’s victory over seminary student Al Gore.
Evangelicals vote for people, not religious categories. Ignore the L.A. Times poll and focus on what happens after religious voters are introduced to the character, policies, and charisma of the competing candidates.