Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the least-known of the top-tier candidates mentioned for president, the least-liked, and probably faces the greatest challenge of any of them.
The issue: his religion.
In an ABC News/Washington Post poll in December, a surprisingly large number of Americans -- 35 percent -- said they'd be less likely to support a presidential candidate who's a Mormon. Just 3 percent were more likely to vote for a Mormon.
By contrast we saw no net negative effect of being a woman or a black candidate -- fewer people were less apt to vote for such candidates -- but in both cases they were canceled out by others who were more likely to support a black or a woman. Not so with a Mormon.
It'll take further polling to tease out why these compunctions exist. But we can see that it may pose a challenge to Romney in tackling them, because they seem to be coming from very different places. Americans least likely to support a Mormon candidate range across the political spectrum, including Republican and independent women and conservative Republicans, but also liberals and people with no religion.
Romney isn't the first candidate to face questions about his religion; in presidential campaigns it was notably an issue for John F. Kennedy in 1960 (as well as for Al Smith, the Happy Warrior, in 1928). In a Gallup poll in 1940, 31 percent of Americans said they wouldn't vote for a "generally well-qualified" candidate from their party who happened to be Catholic. That held, at a lower 21 or 22 percent, across the mid-50s. In May 1960, 21 percent still said they wouldn't vote for a Catholic; 71 percent said they would.
Four months later, on Sept. 12, 1960, Kennedy addressed the issue head on in a celebrated speech at the Rice Hotel in Houston: "I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters -- and the church does not speak for me." That November he was elected president by 118,574 votes out of 68.8 million cast, the closest presidential election (by popular vote) in U.S. history.
One difference for Kennedy was the prevalence of Catholic voters -- according to the post-election National Election Survey in 1961 they accounted for two in 10 voters, and Kennedy won 71 percent of them, compared with just 32 percent of non-Catholic voters. Mormons, by contrast, account for barely more than 1 percent of the U.S. population. Romney's religion, of course, proved no impediment in Massachusetts, where he won his single term as governor with 50 percent of the vote (in a multicandidate field) in 2002. But he also faces other challenges:
Three-quarters in the December ABC/Post poll said they know little or nothing about his positions on specific issues, easily the most of any of the candidates we tested.
Similarly, regarding personal favorability, more than half had no opinion of Romney whatsoever, again the most of all we tested. Those who did have an opinion divided about evenly -- 22 percent favorable, 24 percent unfavorable -- the worst ratio of any of those we tested. (Rudy Giuliani had a nearly 3-1 favorable-to-unfavorable ratio; John McCain, 1.6-1; Romney, just 0.9-1.)
In our poll this month, among leaned Republicans, Romney had 9 percent support for the nomination, even with Newt Gingrich and behind Giuliani and McCain, with 34 and 27 percent respectively. (Romney's 9 percent this month versus 5 percent in December, is not a statistically significant change.)
Romney was supported by 3 percent of evangelical white Protestants (who account for three in 10 leaned Republicans), compared with 11 percent of others; however, this, too, is not a significant difference, given our sample sizes. And as the cross-sectional data show, reluctance to vote for a Mormon is hardly limited to evangelical Protestants alone.