Voters’ views of Mormonism still stumbling block for Romney, new study shows

Author: Susan Guibert

David Campbell

Though the social barriers of race and gender were largely overcome during the last U.S. presidential campaign, religious affiliation (in this case, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormonism) is still a significant hurdle, according to a new study by University of Notre Dame Political Science Professor David Campbell and colleagues from Brigham Young University and the University of Akron.

Campbell also is co-author of “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” (Simon and Schuster, 2010).

A “stained glass ceiling” — one that John F. Kennedy famously shattered in 1960 — may still be an obstacle to Mitt Romney’s 2012 bid for the White House, just as it was for his 2008 presidential aspirations, according to the study, published today in the journal “Political Behavior.”

To many voters, Mormonism remains unpopular and mysterious because of the relative social insularity of the group — that is, followers are most likely to marry within their religion and have the fewest friends and family members outside of the faith. The lack of social contact means that most people have little personal knowledge and experience with Mormons, and are thus susceptible to persuasion by negative information about the group in question.

Campbell and his colleagues conclude that Romney’s religion is likely to remain a potential stumbling block in 2012 unless public attitudes toward Mormons change. Such changes have occurred in the past, as with Kennedy and Catholicism in 1960.

“In 1960, John F. Kennedy famously said, ‘For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been — and may someday be again — a Jew, or a Quaker, or a Unitarian, or a Baptist,’” Campbell says. “In 2012, we can add ‘Mormon’ to that list. However, our research shows that ‘the finger of suspicion’ can be overcome through meaningful relationships between Mormons and their non-Mormon neighbors, co-workers, friends and family members.”

Previous research suggests that sustained contact across religious boundaries — interreligious bridging — fosters religious tolerance in the political sphere. This study, however, takes that one step further by showing that passing contact with a religious out-group can exacerbate unease with that group, at least as it applies to electoral politics. Furthermore, this analysis underscores that campaign information does not circulate in a vacuum. The impact of the framing and counter-framing of Mormonism depends on a voter’s personal experience with Mormons.

Contact: David Campbell, 574-631-7809, Dave_Campbell@nd.edu

Originally published by Susan Guibert at newsinfo.nd.edu on May 22, 2012.