Mitt Romney’s Mormon Faith a Factor in Primaries, Not General Election

Mary Ann Chastain/AP Photo

“Cult” is the word most Americans used when asked in a new poll to describe how they view Mormons, a view that could hurt GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the primaries.

In a new survey by the Pew Research Center, about a third of Americans — and the same proportion of Republican voters — say they don’t believe Mormons are Christians. That number expands even further when specific religious groups are questioned. More than half of white evangelical Protestants say Mormons aren’t part of the Christian faith.

That viewpoint could hurt Mitt Romney in the Republican primary, but it is likely to come into play in the general election, according to Pew. The voters most likely to see Romney’s faith as a negative might still vote for him regardless of religion because they staunchly oppose President Obama. In the general election, Romney does better in a head-to-head matchup with Obama than any of the other top-tier Republican candidates.

“Republicans who say Mormonism is not a Christian religion are less likely to support Romney for the GOP nomination and offer a less favorable assessment of him generally,” the report states. “But they seem prepared to overwhelmingly back him in a run against Obama in the general election.”

Americans’ views of Mormons have been virtually unchanged over the past four years. Just 49 percent say they know a little or a great deal about the Mormon religion. But their views are heavily shaped by the media. When asked for a word to describe their impression of Mormons,” cult,” “polygamy,” “restrictive,” “strange” or “misguided” topped the list.

Romney’s faith has often come into the spotlight, which is why half of all voters know he is a Mormon, according to Pew. But it doesn’t reflect his political standing. Of those polled by Pew, 44 percent of Republican voters said his religion does not make a difference.

What may hurt him more is his political baggage. Romney’s image, per Pew, is unchanged from four years ago when he ran for president. Currently, 38 percent of voters have a favorable view of Romney, while 45 percent have an unfavorable opinion, Pew found.

Despite his faith, the former Massachusetts governor remains in the top two of Republican candidates.

Herman Cain trails closely behind Romney and garners the most support among evangelical Christians. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich comes in third in the Pew survey. Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s popularity has fallen sharply, behind fellow Texan Rep. Ron Paul.