Then as now, Protestant ministers have preached against the election of a man whose version of Christianity they so disapprove of. Then as now, both anonymous fliers and mass-market media focused attention on the candidate's religion, to his annoyance. Then as now, the candidate and his aides debated whether directly discussing the issue would only serve to elevate bigotry, and concluded the issue was so widespread they had no real choice.
For Romney, there are pitfalls that Kennedy did not have. The Catholic vote in the United States was and is a significant voting bloc. That voting bloc was one of the reasons Kennedy was considered a potential asset as a possible vice presidential candidate in 1956. Four years later, Kennedy's aides had made a list of 14 swing states — including New York, California and Pennsylvania — where the population of Catholic voters was disproportionately high enough to count for him rather than against him, according to Theodore H. White's "The Making of the President 1960."
Mormons, conversely, make up about 2 percent of the U.S. population, and the states where they vote in disproportionately large numbers are generally solid Republican states anyway.
Kennedy also had the added benefit in that Catholicism has been around for almost two millennia, whereas one of the main criticisms cited by skeptics of Mormonism is its relatively new nature. The Book of Mormon was published in 1830. Mormonism's history of polygamy, outlawed by the church in 1890, and its previous policy that black men were ineligible to be ordained as priests — rescinded in 1978 — are other reasons the Kennedy comparison may not be completely appropriate.
But there are many parallels. The issue was for Kennedy, and clearly is for Romney, an irritant.
Before the Democratic primary in Wisconsin in April 1960, Kennedy was asked whether he would attend an international summit meeting even if his bishop told him not to.
"Of course I would," Kennedy said, annoyed, as recalled in "Kennedy," by former top aide Theodore Sorensen.
In one newspaper story about his candidacy, the senator counted the word "Catholic" 20 times in only 15 paragraphs. Kennedy would become annoyed by reports that the media would ask attendees at Kennedy rally attendees their religion. "Not their occupation or education or philosophy or income," Kennedy would note, "only their religion."
It wasn't until the West Virginia Democratic primary, however, that the Kennedy campaign felt the need to address his faith.
"I refuse to believe that I was denied the right to be president on the day I was baptized," he had long argued. But in West Virginia, Kennedy began to believe he needed to address how and where he was baptized.
In December 1959, Kennedy was leading Sen. Hubert Humphrey, D-Minn., 70 percent to 30 percent, in polls of Democratic voters in Kanawha County, the populous West Virginia county that includes Charleston.
But by April 1960, that had flipped to 60 percent for Humphrey, 40 percent for Kennedy.
What had happened? Kennedy's campaign officials asked their West Virginia advisers.
No one in West Virginia knew you were a Catholic in December, came the reply. Now they know.
"The issue, it was clear, over and beyond anything … [the Kennedy campaign's] organizational genius could do, was religion: the differing ways men worshipped Christ in this enclave of Western civilization," wrote White. "All other issues were secondary."