If the 2012 Republican primary campaign is remembered for one thing, it must be the near constant rise and fall of the “non-Romney.”
It began with the unlikeliest of challengers: Michele Bachmann. A staunchly conservative Tea Party congresswoman, Bachmann ascended to the summit of the Iowa Straw Poll before dropping like a rock out of thin air. Perhaps voters finally caught on to her uncanny tendency to say made-up things.
I think it is valuable to pause for a moment to clear the air for the congresswoman.
- No, the founders did not “work tirelessly until slavery was no more…”
- No, the Soviet Union is not rising to challenge American military superiority. That whole thing ended a couple decades ago.
- No, HPV vaccines do not cause mental retardation.
How could such a person even pose a momentary threat to Mitt Romney? Let’s address that in a moment.
For now, we must turn our attention to the next-best “non-Romney:” pizza mogul Herman Cain.
After the Bachmann burnout, the Cain Train barreled into Des Moines.
Soon after all that Cain raising began, however, the candidate fell to accusations of sexual harassment. Never mind his general lack of knowledge or interest in anything related to governing a country. Remember this?
I won’t belabor the next few, but remember Rick Perry? As far as “non-Romneys” go, he was pretty much all hype.
Then there was Newt Gingrich, the veteran House Speaker and all around mean guy.
Also, Donald Trump was a thing for awhile. While we were all still recovering from the utter shock that Trump would not, in fact, run for President, he and his hair endorsed Governor Romney at one of Trump’s casinos.
And finally, there was Rick Santorum. After losing his senate seat by 17%, the sweater vested Santorum went on to nearly win the Iowa Caucuses. From there, his campaign gained traction, winning 11 contests before bowing out.
One frequently noted cable-news hypothesis for Mitt’s “non-Romney” problem is that voters skeptical of his Mormon faith will withhold their support from the candidate. In a December poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, “Mormon” was the word used most frequently to describe Romney. The words “no” and “no way” were a close second. “Cult” was the word most often used when respondents were asked to describe the Mormon faith in one word.
Pew also noted last fall that Romney’s Mormon faith would likely play a role in the primary campaign. Among the large number of GOP primary voters who viewed Mormonism as “non-Christian,” Romney consistently polled lower than his evangelical and Catholic opponents. In contest after contest, the question of Romney’s faith remained on the forefront of the political consciousness. Last year, evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress urged listeners to oppose Romney on account of his “non-Christian” faith. By the time the primary campaign concluded, Jeffress had experienced a change of heart. He said, “Jesus isn’t on the ballot this year…Many times, voting is voting for the lesser of two evils.”
The primary campaign has ended, however, and the question of Romney’s religion problem has largely been discredited as we move towards November. Although 22% of Americans, and even more evangelical protestants, say they will not vote for a Mormon candidate, researchers at the Brookings Institution note the crucial difference between hypothetical candidates and real candidates. Romney has a name, a face, a family, and an identity defined by more than his religion. Republican voters, data suggests, will support their nominee–Mormon or not.
Why then has there been so much discussion of Romney’s religion problem? For one theory, we can look to President Obama and his political journey with religion. With 16% of Americans believing falsely that he is a Muslim and 44% unable to identify Obama’s religion at all, the public is confused and misinformed. Mitt Romney faces a similar, if not as vitriolic, problem. In a recent Gallup poll, 33% of Americans were unable to identify Romney’s religion, and only 39% of Americans view the Mormon faith favorably. Pundits seek out points of contention, exploit them, and turn them into political footballs. Instead of providing clarity, they sow discord.
Most thoughtful observers, however, predict that confusion over the candidates’ faith will have little effect on the general election. Those who doubt President Obama’s faith are overwhelmingly Republican to begin with and would vote for Governor Romney regardless of their views of the president’s faith. In addition, evangelicals, the only substantial group with significant skepticism of Romney’s religion, will flock to their party’s nominee no matter their doubts.
As much as many Republicans may have wanted a “non-Romney,” they are stuck with the candidate their party selected (even if he is “the lesser of two evils”). While doubts about Romney’s faith may have stirred the hearts of primary voters yearning for an alternative, the Republican electorate will fully support their candidate when election day finally arrives.