Why has there been so little discussion of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism? Aside from some jokes on late-night television, dialogue about the Republican nominee’s religious affiliation has been remarkably sparse.
One year ago, Mitt Romney’s religion was the talk of the campaign. Strategists worried that “activating” the Mormon issue would hurt Romney’s chances in his fight for the Republican nomination. Judging by Romney’s troubles in 2008 when one of his Republican opponents brought up the issue, there was ample cause for concern:
Less than a month before the 2008 Iowa Caucuses, Republican candidate Mike Huckabee — a former Baptist pastor — notoriously pondered whether Mormons “believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers.” Although he pleaded ignorance about Mormonism when pressed about his views, Huckabee’s campaign manager told the New York Times that Huckabee “talked about the issue wherever he goes.”
Romney may have paid a price for such attacks at the polls. More than a third of Republican caucus-goers said it mattered a “great deal” that a candidate shared their religious beliefs according to entrance polls; 56 percent of these voters supported Huckabee while 11 percent backed Romney. Romney won almost 40 percent of the vote among those who said religion didn’t matter much.
So far in the general election campaign, neither President Obama nor his supporters are saying anything to pique latent voter mistrust of Mormons. Obama has seldom referred to his opponent’s religion, and when he does he speaks in general terms, praising Romney’s faith. Here is what the president told Time Magazine in August:
“I think he takes his faith very seriously. And as somebody who takes my Christian faith seriously, I appreciate that he seems to walk the walk and not just be talking the talk when it comes to his participation in his church.”
Notice that Obama does not mention the M word here, keen to avoid even the appearance of trying to scare voters about Romney’s unconventional faith. And notice how the entire network of support for the president seems to be on board. The Super PAC supporting Obama’s campaign is clear that Romney’s Mormonism isn’t to be broached in campaign ads:
“We are ruling that out,” Priorities USA senior strategist Bill Burton said. “I don’t even see the point in engaging in this conversation too much. … The campaign said they wouldn’t engage on it. I haven’t heard of any Democrat who has said that should be touched.”
There are two ways to view this silence on Romney’s faith. One is this: Obama is taking the high road, passing on a campaign issue that could frighten evangelical Christians enough to keep them from away from the ballot box. In contrast to Romney’s campaign machine, which considered and rejected a plan to attack Obama for his ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright back in May, the Obama team has never countenanced such a cynical strategy.
Another interpretation would paint the decision to remain mum on Mormonism as a careful calculation rather than a principled stand. Maybe stirring up doubt about Romney by drawing attention to his religious affiliation would be seen as desperate. Maybe it would backfire. Maybe it would open the field to Wright-style attack ads like this one from 2008:
Keeping quiet on Romney’s faith, then, may be more a consequence of the implications of mutually assured destruction on the religion question than a decision of high principle. But if you believe Ed Klein’s unverified claim from late August, the topic is not really off the table at the Obama headquarters:
According to my sources inside the campaign, Axelrod & Co. discussed what might be called the nuclear option: unleashing an attack on Romney’s Mormon faith via the mainstream media….Is this sudden, strange and unaccountable focus on Mitt Romney’s Mormonism by the mainstream media just an odd coincidence? Or is the “fine Italian hand” of David Axelrod behind the media onslaught?…Axelrod calculated that if he could turn 5 to 10 percent of the evangelicals against Romney because of his Mormonism, he could deny Romney victory at the polls in 2012.
My hunch is that this is a nuclear strike Obama team never seriously considered launching. But with eight days of campaigning left, and the race tighter than ever, circumstances are ripe for a last-minute offensive tapping mistrust of Mormonism in Virginia or Colorado, two crucial swing states where the evangelical vote is significant.
I doubt we’ll see an attack on Romney’s Mormonism from the Obama campaign in these final days — and I hope the president’s team stays on the high road. Then again, time is short, the stakes are huge, and the issue is volatile enough to swing undecided voters in crucial states.
Steven Mazie is on Twitter: @stevenmazie