There are a lot of reasons why 2016 could be Mitt Romney’s year. At least he thinks so. And he has, I would say, at least a few things going for him. First, as Pew highlights, by some measures Americans’ opinions of Mormons softened. Respondents were more likely to describe Mormons with positive words (such as “good person”), and they also saw themselves as less unlike Mormons than in the past.
Then there is always that, having run for president in the past, Romney may have learned from his mistakes. It is in this spirit that Romney is now focusing more concretely upon his Mormon faith as an advantage, not disadvantage. Compare the two stories from the New York Times.
The first in 2012:
“[A]s the presumptive Republican nominee for president, Mr. Romney speaks so sparingly about his faith — he and his aides frequently stipulate that he does not impose his beliefs on others — that its influence on him can be difficult to detect.”
And the second just this month:
“[Romney’s] speech this month at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting offered an early glimpse of how he might run differently in 2016. Mr. Romney openly mentioned his leadership roles in his church, as ‘a pastor for a congregation and for groups of congregations.’”
The story is simple: Romney did not highlight his religion in 2012, and he is now. Even if the Governor did not bring up religion, however, the media did. The result? While at the beginning 39% of Americans knew Romney was Mormon, by the end of the campaign 65% could identify his religious beliefs.
So, will talking about his religion help Romney? It’s difficult to tell. Yes Americans, from 2011 to 2012, became more accepting of Mormons. This is especially true among Protestants, who moved up six points (from 25 to 31%) in the “a lot in common” between themselves and Mormons category. But if John Zaller taught us anything, it is that public opinion is fickle, open to priming and top-of-the-head processing. And two polls does not a trend make. There is one big difference between 2012 and 2016: Romney’s opponent (should he get so lucky in 2016) will not be Barack Obama.
This matters a lot. Remember that for many Americans, religious background is an easy way to delineate “us” from “them.” And for many, Barack Obama was the ultimate other. He’s a socialist, he’s Black, and he’s (depending on their mood) either a militant Black Christian a-la Jeremiah Wright or “Barack Hussein Obama,” a secret Muslim.
Given this, what is more likely: that some Americans became permanently more accepting of Mormons in a year, or that they identified someone who could beat a “still-more-other” other? By comparison, Mitt Romney was less of an other than Barack Obama. This is borne out in Pew’s data, where we see that there is a distinctly political tinge to changing moods about Mormons:
This warming of attitudes about the Mormon religion is concentrated among Republicans and independents who lean Republican. Among Republicans and people who lean toward the GOP, a third (32%) say their own beliefs and Mormon beliefs have a lot in common, up from 25% in November 2011. Views among Democrats and people who lean toward the Democratic Party have stayed about the same.
Now it is of course possible that these changes are genuine among the Republican and Republican-leaning population. In the absence of crunching data, we can sit back and watch Mitt run. If he somehow gets the nomination, he may have the chance — like Kennedy — to get a non-Protestant president into the Oval Office. But if he does, it will have to be (in part) because those same conservative Americans genuinely see him as like themselves and not simply “more like themselves than Obama.”