Mitt Romney’s speech today focused ostensibly on religious liberty and tolerance, with the direct implication that his Mormon faith should not be an issue for voters. But it is not clear that the political goal for the speech — to woo evangelical Republicans in early primary states — was achieved.
There was, apparently, quite a bit of controversy within the Romney campaign about whether this speech should be given at this point or at all. Most observers believe that it was the recent success of the Huckabee campaign in Iowa that prompted the speech at this time. I think pundits will be debating the wisdom of Romney’s choice for quite a while. Romney had very little to gain and much to lose with this speech. Most general polls suggest that the average voter cares little about Romney’s Mormon faith, but that a significant portion of likely Republican primary voters (and caucus attendees) are evangelicals who don’t fully support the idea that a Mormon should be president. Endorsements of Romney’s candidacy by Christian Right leaders aside, most evangelicals believe that Mormonism is a cult and not a Christian denomination. Some evangelicals were willing to vote for Romney because he was a better alternative than the pro-choice, twice divorced Rudy Guliani. But the advent of Mike Huckabee as a legitimate candidate, with his social conservative and evangelical faith credentials, makes Romney second choice for many evangelicals. This could be disastrous for the Romney campaign, particularly in Iowa and South Carolina.
So Romney’s challenge was to convince evangelicals that it doesn’t matter that he’s Mormon, that he’ll support the right policies when the time comes. In a race where there were no viable evangelical candidates, this would have been a winning strategy. But a focus on civil religion and the importance of faith in American’s lives is not enough for most evangelicals to choose a Mormon over a former Baptist preacher. Romney’s strongest argument to evangelicals is not his faith tradition or the need for Americans to be religiously tolerant; it is that he is the only conservative candidate that can win the Republican nomination. But Huckabee’s recent surge calls even that argument into question. So while the goal of the speech was to reassure evangelicals that being a Mormon is OK and that he is still a good candidate for them, all it likely did was more starkly draw the lines between his Mormon faith and the evangelical faith of his newly strong competitor. That is not a recipe for a Romney win in Iowa or South Carolina.
Kimberly H. Conger is an assistant professor in the political science department at Iowa State University.