Religion Could Stunt Romney's White House Bid

ByABC News
January 29, 2007, 4:34 PM

January 29, 2007— -- 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.