Mitt Romney formally announced his bid for the Republican nomination for president yesterday in New Hampshire, but a new poll suggests that the former governor of Massachusetts may still face an uphill climb to secure the votes of evangelicals because of his Mormon faith.
The May 25-30 survey from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press asked people how they would vote for presidential candidates with different traits. The survey found that a third of evangelicals (34 percent) said they would be less likely to vote for someone who is Mormon, compared to Mainline Protestants (19 percent) or Catholics (16 percent).
The findings were similar to Pew's 2007 survey when Romney attempted a previous run. With evangelicals making up a major voting bloc in the GOP primaries, particularly in early states like Iowa and South Carolina, a reluctance to vote for a Mormon candidate could hurt Romney. It could also affect fellow Mormon (albeit with different level of commitment) former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman who may still enter the race.
Overall, 25 percent of voters would be less likely to vote for a Mormon. Liberal Democrats were most opposed to a Mormon candidate (41 percent). Pew found that among the voters who were opposed to a Mormon candidate, about two-third of them said there was "no chance" they would support Romney for president.
Evangelicals were also much more likely to oppose a gay candidate, with nearly two-thirds of them said they would oppose such a candidate. This is over twice the opposition among either Mainline Protestants (30 percent) or Catholics (25 percent).
Unlike opposition to a Mormon candidate, views of a possible homosexual candidate have changed over the past four years. In 2007, nearly half of Americans (46 percent) said they would be a less likely to vote for a homosexual candidate. In this survey, that percentage dropped to just one-third, and all groups showed less opposition to a gay candidate. Evangelicals also dropped (71 to 65 percent), but this was less than the change among other groups. Some of the largest changes in the two surveys came among African Americans (53 to 34 percent), those over 65 years of age (59 to 40 percent), and conservative Republicans (73 to 58 percent).
Of all the traits Pew asked about, the one the public found most negative was atheism. About 60 percent of Americans said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who "does not believe in God," about the same percentage as in 2007.
Whether these views actually affect how people vote is an open question. On the one hand, some people may be hesitant to offer an answer that could be seen as intolerant, so the poll may be under-reporting biases against candidates. On the other hand, research on intolerance finds that what people say often sounds more intolerant than people actually act when push comes to shove. In their ideal world, voters may not want to support a candidate with certain traits, but a ballot rarely offers ideal choices.
Editor's Note: Pew identifies evangelicals as white, non-Hispanic Protestants who described themselves as "born-again or evangelical." Mainline Protestants are other white, non-Hispanic Protestants. For comparison, reported percentages on "Catholics" includes only white, non-Hispanic Catholics. Around 18 percent of Americans are evangelicals by this definition. The margin of error for each religious group is larger than for the sample as a whole. The results are descriptive; religious differences could be due to partisanship, ideology, income, or other factors.