The EFM Feature

Tom Bevan at realclearpolitics.com is a fantastic and persuasive political commentator, but his comment on what will forever be known as “That L.A. Times Poll” is a bit off base. Taking the poll as providing real and useful data, he makes two primary points (points that are consistently made when discussing Governor Romney’s so-called “Mormon problem”). First, he says Romney will have a problem with evangelicals because other smart people (like Robert Novak and Amy Sullivan) say that he will.
While we will deal with Novak and Sullivan’s arguments in later entries, it is important to note that Novak, Sullivan (and Bevan for that matter) place at the heart of their assumption the idea that evangelicals either cannot or will not separate their feelings about the theology of Mormonism from their feelings about the political and moral values of Mitt Romney, a candidate they will get to know over the course of an extended political campaign. There is no indication that Novak, Sullivan, or anyone else have actually taken the time to talk to hundreds (or even dozens) of southern evangelicals–including rural southern evangelicals–about the Governor. They are theorizing what these individuals at the grass roots will think and do. Their ideas represent nothing more than educated guesses.
Well, we have spoken to literally hundreds of southern evangelicals about Governor Romney, including folks from some of the most fundamentalist churches in the South. As we’ve said before (and will no doubt say again and again), in all those conversations only one person refused to support the Governor because of his religion. (One of the more amusing responses to the “Mormon question” came from an elderly woman from a small town in West Tennessee. After we brought up his religion, she responded: “Well, at least he ain’t Catholic.”) While I do not argue that our experience represents a scientifically chosen, statistically significant sample, I will assert that it is a better representation of evangelical behavior than theories about that behavior based on theological/political assumptions.
Bevan’s second major point relates to the presumed parade of horribles that can be unleashed by a combination of a Rovian/South Carolina dirty tricks operation and an avalanche of mainstream media stories about the less commonly known aspects of Mormon theology or about the practices of fringe Mormon groups. Bevan quotes Ross Douthat: “A few flyers about polygamy in South Carolinian mailboxes, or some push-poll telephone calls about the weirdness of the Book of Mormon in the Catholic Midwest . . . well, you get the idea.”
If I had a nickel every time a Romney skeptic asked me about “Rovian” dirty tricks in South Carolina, I’d, well, at least have the computer I’d always wanted. According to this narrative, John McCain was heading for the Republican nomination until Rove (or his evil minions) began putting flyers on cars that spread dark rumors about the senator’s personal life. These flyers (and some strategic push polling) killed McCain’s momentum, the rednecks turned out in droves for Bush, and the rest is history.
I’ve heard this story so much that I assumed that there was some data to back it up. Maybe some exit polling indicating that “McCain’s personal life” was the dispositive issue to a large number of voters. Or maybe even stacks of thousands upon thousands of flyers that McCain’s people found all over the state. After all, Bush won by about 70,000 votes. But as near as I can tell, while it has been established that something bad happened in South Carolina, the actual statistical significance (or even extent) of that “something” is unknown. But it makes for a great story.
The point? Push polls and nasty flyers can have an impact, certainly, but the extent of that impact is unknown, and exit polling certainly indicates that even South Carolina good ‘ol boys care about the issues. Until someone can come forward with some actual data regarding the impact of those kinds of dirty tricks, I will remain skeptical.
There is something else, though. Something much more important. I believe that a frontal attack on the Governor’s religion would have an effect that is opposite of that predicted by many pundits. It is easy to forget that many evangelicals are deeply disturbed by the way in which the left and especially the mainstream media (What am I saying? The left and the mainstream media are the same entity) have consistently mocked and attacked their faith. It is much easier for me to imagine evangelicals getting angry at religion-based attacks on a man of obvious and demonstrated integrity and a man who forcefully and eloquently advocates political and moral values that evangelicals share. Remember, in the context of a presidential race, the attacks will not be seen as simply attacks on a religion but also as attacks on a person…a person whom evangelicals will like. I believe evangelicals will respond to dirty tricks by saying, “Let’s leave the religious bigotry to the Democrats.”


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