For much of the American public, Mitt Romney remains a cipher. As Via Meadia has noted previously, Romney has too often ceded control of his personal narrative to the press and his opponents, making him particularly vulnerable to countless attacks on his character and to damaging stories like the account of his prep school days. A new Brookings Institution study of the impact of Romney’s Mormonism on the electorate underscores this crucial point. BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins summarizes:
According to the study, a full 82 percent of respondents said they knew “little” or “nothing” about Mormonism, and researchers found that feeding them even a couple sentences of basic information about the church’s beliefs had the ability to swing wide swaths of the electorate in terms of their support for Romney.
Americans’ perceptions of the presumptive Republican nominee, in other words, are still highly malleable. Romney abandons this territory to pundits and political opponents at his own risk. The competition to define “the real Romney” is just beginning, and the candidate needs to be out in front.
There are signs that Team Romney is beginning to change its approach. Over at the New York Times, Jodi Kantor examines how important Romney’s Mormonism has been in shaping the contours of his life. Although Romney himself declined to be interviewed for the article, that his son Tagg was quoted suggests the campaign might be adopting a new course. What’s more, we are glad to report that, while Kantor’s piece throws a few obligatory bones to the reflexively anti-Romney readership, the article generally eschews the insidious Mormon-bashing and ludicrous theocracy warnings that have sadly characterized much of the coverage of Romney’s faith.
But the piece exposes the dilemma at the heart of the Romney campaign: the former governor can only be understood and appreciated as a human being in the light of the deep faith that informs and guides his approach to life, but few Americans understand what that faith is and how it works. Worse, while a tolerant society no longer persecutes Mormons or drives them out of town, many Americans view Mormonism as a cult and as an aggressive competitor against orthodox Christianity rather than as just one more stripe in the coat of many colors that makes up the American Christian world. (On the left, many find Mormon evocations of traditional American values and social norms both hackneyed and threatening; for these people, the profound theological differences between the faiths are obscured by their conservative social agenda. Either way, Romney loses.)
The superficially obvious route for the Romney candidacy would be to present his Mormon faith in the safest and most domesticated way possible, attempting to minimize the unique features and beliefs of the church. Lots of talk about Jesus, faith, the Bible, and God—and little or nothing about the more distinctive tenets of the Church. That would make many evangelicals and Catholics uncomfortable; some feel that Mormon missionaries operate deceptively by claiming to present a form of Christianity while leading proselytes farther and farther away from core Christian teachings. Most of the conservative evangelical and Catholic voters who make up so much of the Republican base today are okay with a”‘live and let live” approach to the Mormon faith, but many of them resist the idea of accepting Mormons as a “legitimate” Christian church—and its claim to be truly Christian is exactly what they like least about it.
Yet the Times piece makes a strong case that his Mormon faith is the cement that holds the candidate’s worldview together.
Now, as 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.
But dozens of the candidate’s friends, fellow church members and relatives describe a man whose faith is his design for living. The church is by no means his only influence, and its impact cannot be fully untangled from that of his family, which is also steeped in Mormonism.
But being a Latter-day Saint is “at the center of who he really is, if you scrape everything else off,” said Randy Sorensen, who worshiped with Mr. Romney in church.
Here is the contradiction that Romney must reconcile if he is to connect with voters: for a candidate who has earned a well-deserved reputation for his malleable policy views, talking about his faith allows Romney to articulate his core convictions and to relate to the electorate on the basis of some core common values: family, self help, generosity to those in need. At the level of daily values and political ideals, Mormonism grounds Romney in the mainstream of American life; at the level of theology, Mormonism pushes him to the margin.
The relationship of the Mormon community to the American mainstream is an interesting one. From the standpoint of orthodox Trinitarian Christianity as understood by the Eastern Orthodox, the Roman Catholic Church and the leading American Protestant denominations and movements, the Mormon faith is pretty far “out there” in theological terms. But from the standpoint of traditional American civic, social, and political values, the Mormon faith and its community values are in many ways so normal and wholesome they strike many as corny.
To many people, the Mormon religion feels at once hyper-American and un-American. It is apple pie and secret underwear; it is Doris Day on the outside and Carmen Miranda within. (Let me emphasize that I am not trying to describe what the religion is or to judge either the faith or its adherents; I am merely trying to capture the contradictory ways in which its social conformity to conventional and historical American ideals clashes with its doctrinal originality and unique history and organization.)
This is not all that unlike the way Catholicism looked to many Americans two and three generations ago. On the one hand, Catholics were as American as apple pie. On the other, they were the members of a mysterious and even frightening religious body who accepted the dictates of the allegedly infallible Pope of Rome. They claimed to be just like everybody else while insisting that the differences between their church and everyone else’s were a matter of life and death. They were patriotically orthodox but religiously “weird”—at least that is how they often appeared to Protestants.
At one level, this isn’t going to matter much. The Republican base deeply wants President Obama out of the White House, and they are going to turn out for their party’s man. But for independents and swing voters, it’s complicated.
Candidates need to connect with voters in ways that are more visceral than intellectual. (Liberals still recoil when they remember how exit polls from the 2000 election showed that voters would overwhelmingly prefer to have a beer with George W. Bush instead of Al Gore.) As Via Meadia pointed out recently, surveys from Gallup show Barack Obama holds a near two-to-one advantage over Mitt Romney when voters are asked to name which candidate is more likable. According to Gallup, this could spell trouble for Romney:
Voters usually elect the candidate they like more. In each of the last five presidential elections, the candidate whose basic favorable rating was higher won the election each time.
If voters like Mitt Romney, Democratic attacks on his record at Bain won’t make much headway. If voters don’t like or don’t trust him, any mud thrown in his general direction is likely to stick. The central dilemma for the Romney campaign: Romney’s faith is unpopular and that isn’t likely to change in the course of an election cycle. But that faith makes him behave in ways that are popular for the most part: helping neighbors, contributing to his community, standing by his word, making sacrifices for his beliefs. So central is this faith to Romney’s life and character that if you keep faith in the background it’s hard to project a coherent and likable portrait.
Romney can’t talk about his faith; Romney must talk about his faith. If his strategists and advisers can figure this one out, they will deserve the huge fees that they charge.
[Image courtesy of Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock.com.]