The Trouble With Mitt Romney (Part 5 of 5)

By Dan McLaughlin Posted in | | Comments (18) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »

The fifth and last installment of a five-part series on why Republicans who are serious about winning the White House in 2008 are wasting our time on Mitt Romney. For background, check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and, from February 2007, my explanation of why I'm with Rudy and my take on Mike Huckabee.

V. The "M" Word

A. Why It Shouldn't Matter

At long last, after 12,086 words of turning the Eye of Sauron on Mitt Romney, we come to the delicate matter of Romney's religion. A few preliminaries are in order. First, I will admit that, perhaps naively after seeing how Ted Kennedy cynically used it as a wedge against Romney in 1994, I was initially dismissive of early concerns that Romney would face unusual electoral problems due to his Mormon faith. Second, I myself would vote with great enthusiasm for a Mormon president if he's otherwise a good candidate (i.e., Orrin Hatch - yes. Harry Reid - no.). As I have said before, I was behind Romney in 1994 and 2002. Sure, there are some things Mormons believe in, theologically speaking, that seem downright bizarre to me, but other people's religions often look like that from the outside. Short of a politician espousing a religious doctrine that leads to actively dangerous policies, I'm fine with having a President I disagree with on matters of faith - after all, 41 of the 42 men to have the job weren't of my faith (Catholic), and the one who was wasn't exactly a saint, nor is the nominal Catholic I'm supporting this time around.

Moreover, there is a lot to be said for sticking religious bigotry in a box where we never take it into account. Especially when, as The Wall Street Journal put it:

The Mormons seem the very embodiment of "family values," and you couldn't invent a religious culture that lived more consistently with Biblical messages. Broadly speaking, most Mormons have, and come from, big families; they're regular churchgoers and give to charity; they don't drink, smoke, gamble or engage in premarital sex. On the scale of American problems, the Mormons don't even register.

And, one would add, Mormons are just about the most solidly Republican group in the nation. I would hate to see Mormons come away from the 2008 primary process feeling like their guy didn't get a fair shake because of his religion. In fact, some people have even advocated supporting Romney for that reason alone, while others contend that Romney would draw strength from the inevitable bile hurled by the left at his church. So it's with a fair amount of trepidation that I even get into this topic, given the very long list of legitimate reasons to oppose Romney's nomination that I dealt with in the first four installments.

B. Why It Does

For all of that, though, politics must be conducted in the real world. As a Rudy supporter, I've spent a lot of time arguing with people who would sit out the general election and let Hillary win rather than lift a finger for Rudy, mainly over his views on abortion. I've made my case as to why it doesn't make the slightest bit of sense. But the fact that he loses some such voters is a reality Rudy has to deal with, and is one of the main reasons why I've been giving a second look to John McCain and, to a lesser extent, Fred. Rudy's answer to that dilemma is that he's a great candidate who can bring in other people to the party to replace the voters he loses, in a way that works to his advantage on the national map.

Whether you buy that argument in Rudy's case or not, the simple fact is that in the real world in 2008, Romney has a similar problem - and with some of the same voters - due to his religion. If anything, it's become a bigger problem with religious conservatives as a result of Romney's history of recent and prominent flip-flops on social issues: Mitt has had no choice but to tell people to trust him in politics because of his religious convictions - while simultaneously telling them not to worry about the details of his religious convictions because all that matters is how he translates them into political convictions. If he had shown more consistent support for the political results Christian conservatives seek to bring about, he might not be in the same fix.

We have a lot of scraps of evidence - a poll here, an anecdote there - suggesting that there may be a bunch of people out there who just won't pull the lever for Romney for no other reason than his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Let's consider a few polling data points:

*A Gallup poll just after Romney's big speech on religion showing that 18% of Republicans would not vote for a Mormon for President.

*The Boston Globe earlier this month claimed that "between 25 and 40 percent" of Americans in various polls have said they would not vote for a Mormon.

*A Pew Center poll from mid-2007 puts the numbers of those who are at least reluctant to vote for a Mormon at 25% of Republicans and 41% of regular churchgoing white evangelical Protestant Republicans.

*A February 2007 CBS poll showing about a quarter of voters in each party saying they would not vote for a Mormon.

*NPR collected six national polls from 2006 ranging from 14% to 53% having reservations about voting for a Mormon.

*Poll showing Mormonism with just barely higher public approval than Islam.

*Pollster Mark Mellman: "With polls measuring anti-Mormon sentiment anywhere from 20 percent to 60 percent, I’m not sure whether to despair more about our prejudices or the validity of our polls."

Romney's favorability ratings, where you might find prejudice against him to be buried, have been up and down depending on the poll, the date and the jurisdiction, but he has persistently shown higher unfavorability ratings than you would expect from a candidate with relatively low national name ID, and I believe it's only in the past six weeks or so has his favorability rating been regularly above his unfavorables.

And the anecdotal evidence, just to scratch the surface:

*A Dallas pastor's attack on Romney as not being a Christian.

*A Florida televangelist saying "A vote for Romney is a vote for Satan."

*Readers respond to former Congressman Martin Frost on Mormonism.

Now, fair-minded people can and do disagree about how much validity to give these polls, and I'm sure polls can be cited going the other way. I suspect that the number would shrink somewhat on protracted public examination of the issue (Mellman's Hill column notes that the number of people refusing to vote for a Catholic dropped in half between 1958 and 1960). But here's what worries me: people don't like to admit to their prejudices. Prejudice in the voting booth may be overstated, but we know enough of human nature to know that if X percent of people say they won't vote for a candidate of a particular faith or race or gender, the actual number has to be higher.

I can't for the life of me figure why the people who argue that Rudy is unelectable due to potential defections from Christian conservatives aren't similarly worried about Romney. And unlike Rudy, Romney isn't going to reach out and bring in a whole lot of people who didn't vote for Bush in 2004; he just doesn't offer anything all that new or different, and more blood can't be squeezed from the stone of Mormon voters - only in Nevada (6.96% of the population) and maybe Arizona (5.97%) is the Mormon bloc large enough to potentially make a difference in a swing state. So unless Romney can limit the potential losses from unease with his faith, he's in even worse shape than he'd be already due to his other problems as a candidate. I wouldn't let this concern over religion bother me if I thought Romney was a tremendous candidate, since he'd be able to overcome it. But when you start with the many flaws Romney already has, as discussed in the first four installments of this series, this is one more thing to worry about with Romney that we don't need.

All of which increasingly convinces me that Romney isn't Mormonism's JFK, but more like its Al Smith, the first Catholic nominee who lost to Hoover in 1928. Now, I can fully understand why members of Romney's own faith community may well want to see him nominated in the hopes of breaking down barriers, and may see it as preferable to run Romney and lose than get behind someone else. There's a real hunger out there to get that last stamp of legitimacy on the LDS community in this country, a hunger not dissimilar to what Hillary, Obama, Huckabee and Richardson are playing to in their own ways. But this election is too important, with too much at stake, to expect the rest of us to sign on to that venture. Send us a better messenger, and we'll carry that message then.


The trouble with Mitt Romney as a presidential candidate in 2008 isn't just any one thing; it's the whole package, and specifically the fact that he has a weakness to undermine every case that could be made for him. He can't run on his record; it's too sparse. He can't run on his principles, which are elusive and ever-shifting. He can't run on his personality, which comes off as overly programmed. He can't run on his faith, which is unpopular. He can't run on his biography, which starts with being born into a wealthy and influential family and encounters no particularly compelling adversity along the way. He can't run on his platform, which ranges from an immigration plan that was clearly designed just to get him through the primaries to a health care plan that, like Bush's prescription drug plan, is basically just HillaryCare Lite. He can't run on his fortune; the Democratic field can outspend anyone this year. He can point to his record as a businessman, but after 8 years of a CEO/MBA president, a CEO Vice President and a Cabinet stocked with CEOs from many different industries, it's hard to convince the average voter who is disaffected with Bush that what the Bush Administration really needed was more businessmen. What's left?

Romney has more than amply demonstrated that, however personally honest and decent a man he may be, he is a thoroughgoing political opportunist, and neither remotely good at hiding that fact nor possessed of counterbalancing virtues as a candidate. The transparency of that opportunism, combined with a thin resume of public leadership, minimal foreign policy experience, the lack of an identifiable core of beliefs or rationales for running, and a pronounced tendency towards the lamest sort of campaign gimmickry, not only raises questions about what kind of president he might in theory be, but also compellingly demonstrates that he would be a disaster as a general election candidate. If we nominate him, we will lose.

Argue all you want about which candidate is the best and who would benefit the most from a Romney defeat in the primaries, but of this I am sure: 2008 does not end with President-elect Mitt Romney. The endgame of Romney's strategy is the nomination, and we should give that nomination to someone who is better situated to do something with it. The sooner we get him off the stage, the faster we can focus on the candidates who are worthy of our time and attention. Romney has wasted far too much of both.

that Romney has no postive attributes on which to run, what exactly are you suggesting has drawn me and other Romneybots to support his candidacy?

Is it his hair? His TV ads? His deceptiveness? What is it?

I find your conclusions to be incredibly patronizing.

And BTW, how is it that a Catholic like yourself could justify supporting a pro-choice candidate when there are far better pro-life alternatives to choose from?

I'm not crawling into your head as to why you support him. But I will say that Romney has relied on a lot of things in the primaries that won't work in the general - his early-state strategy, his home-field advantage in NH, his financial advantages.

Go read my Rudy piece. I think we can get good judges from Rudy and that will advance the pro-life cause far more than losing the election would.

"No compromise with the main purpose, no peace till victory, no pact with unrepentant wrong." - Winston Churchill

about the judges.

It would be different if, say, his position were "I'm pro-choice, but I believe Roe v. Wade is bad law and was wrongly decided. I don't believe states should ban abortion, but it should be entirely up to them to decide."

Instead, we are supposed to buy into the notion that a man who supports Roe v. Wade will nominate judges who will overturn it. If you choose to believe that, then fine, but it's proven difficult for people like Ted Olson, Bill McCollum, Steve Forbes and Pat Robertson to market that message to pro-life conservatives when they could very easily vote Thompson, Romney or McCain.

Two thoughts:
First the "M-word." This is a very devastating picture of the effect of Mormonism on the campaign (I hope your wrong, but I don't know), and it is a real tragedy. My family has been Mormon almost as long as we have been conservative. As a young Republican, I am just starting to become involved in politics and this issue has been a real struggle for me. I don't expect people to accept my faith, and honestly I don't care how other people label it, but it is hard to see Republicans - allies - tearing Mormonism, not Mitt Romney, apart. It doesn't make me question being a Mormon, it makes me question being a Republican.

Second, I have appreciated your thoughtful analysis of Mitt Romney. I have read all the installments and I have learned a lot. It has also helped me do my own research and figure out what issues are important to me and which ones are not. Even if I disagree on a lot of your points, I appreciate the posts.

And like I said, if we had a great candidate who was a Mormon, I'd say we spit in the wind and d**n the torpedos. Maybe we'll get to that place in a few more cycles, and that candidate will have Romney to thank.

"No compromise with the main purpose, no peace till victory, no pact with unrepentant wrong." - Winston Churchill

Though I am hugely uncomfortable doing so. I'm unsure why anti-LDS Prejudice is so great; although I strongly disagree with many tenets of the faith, I have no reason to fear a leader who believes in them very strongly.

But as you say, Mitt Romney has other major weaknesses that prevent him from becoming a "transcendent candidate" that could overcome this latent prejudice. Some people have said if he wins the GOP Primary, it will prove that the prejudice will be a non-factor. Sadly, that is not the case, because it assumes only Republicans hold prejudice against Mormons, which I know for a fact is NOT the case.

The "Mormon problem" is actually two separate problems.

One is the problem you claim: that people will not vote for a Mormon.

The other is the problem you are attempting to contribute to: that people believe that other people will not vote for a Mormon.

The latter is a coordination problem. If people believe that Romney's Mormonism will be a stumbling block, they will be reluctant to support him as the try to pick between their favorites in a crowded primary and as they look for someone who can compete in the generals.

Of course, if you debunk the first problem, the second problem will implode, given a little time.

So let's take a look at that first problem. Will Romney be hampered by large numbers refusing to vote for a Mormon?

No. Here's the evidence and reasoning:

1) Romney is seriously outperforming expectations of the fearful. With your reasoning, how well would you have expected Romney to be performing in South Carolina? The "Mormon problem" theorists all were sure he would flop there.

2) The substance of your argument relies primarily on polls. Abstract poll questions are notoriously meaningless. None of the polls you cite ask about Romney the Mormon, they just ask about abstract Mormons.

3) Let's pretend your abstract poll questions are chock full of meaning. Take another look at that Gallup link, Dan. 18% will not vote for Romney. 28% will not vote for Giuliani. So sorry. I wish you well on your search for a better candidate. McCain also performed significantly worse than Romney on one of these polls, for being so old.

4) Most people don't live in a cave. Most people know Mormons, and people who know Mormons usually respect and even admire them. Just picture those people attributing all of those good traits to Romney.

5) You're double counting. We already have poll numbers, and Romney is doing well. He's doing best where people have examined him closely. Any hypothetical detractors who won't support him just for Mormonism are already factored into those polls. In fact, this just should mean to you that he's an even better candidate than his poll numbers would suggest, because the only reason he's not performing even better is due to some bigotry.

6) There are just two groups Romney hypothetically stands to lose: a) certain sub-groups of evangelicals deep in the red states, and b) ultra-left religion haters. If Romney wins the nomination, he's not going to lose any of those red states in the generals. And the ultra-left was never going to support him anyway. He's going to use his technocrat credentials to go after the independents and moderates, who are the very people least likely to be bigoted, and most likely to view his Mormonism favorably.

What if Mitt wins 25% of the vote in Iowa and 32% in New Hampshire? That may well be enough to catapult him to victory - but you need a lot more votes to win those two states in November than a quarter of Iowa GOP caucusgoers and a third of New Hampshire GOP primary voters.

"No compromise with the main purpose, no peace till victory, no pact with unrepentant wrong." - Winston Churchill

Bigotry won't bring Romney down in New Hampshire. Let's look at Iowa more carefully, though.

First, you're proposing about the narrowest plausible margin of victory for a five-man race, especially considering that Giuliani probably won't even make double digits there.

Second, Romney is facing Huckabee in Iowa. Huckabee: all religion, all the time. If Romney wins the contest of the so-cons against Huckabee, you can bet any voters who had their eye on religion would support him against someone like Clinton.

in a fractured early-state primary/caucus field you don't get a true sense of the candidate's general election strength. And that goes to several of your points.

As to #4, that gets Mitt part of the way - it's certainly consistent with my own experience with Mormons - but look at those population figures outside a handful of states.

"No compromise with the main purpose, no peace till victory, no pact with unrepentant wrong." - Winston Churchill

"The only evidence we have from the primaries is that Romney is a strong candidate, but it could hypothetically be otherwise."

At which point you fall back on the polls as evidence that there is a lingering anti-Mormon weakness.

Those polls are meaningless, as I've said, and insofar as they meant something, it would mean that we must be even more reluctant to nominate Giuliani and McCain. We should prefer Romney to those two, at least. We could probably also come up with a couple of abstracts for Thompson ("lobbyist-actor") and Huckabee ("self-proclaimed CHRISTIAN LEADER") that would place them in a worse position than Romney, too.

And again, although we might not know the "true impact" of Romney's Mormonism in the generals, we can judge that even if it were an issue for some in the general election, those who would most likely care would be those in deep red states that Romney would win anyway, and liberal religion-haters who would be unlikely to vote for any Republican anyway. In other words, even if it were a weakness, it would be a very convenient weakness in electoral terms, unlike Giuliani's.

single-issue pro-lifers who won't vote for Rudy are similarly likely to be mainly in safe red states. Obviously the question is how many of both groups there are in AR, LA, OH and other states that may be close.

I'm not saying I have any idea of the scale of the problem for either candidate, really. It's just another thing to worry about.

"No compromise with the main purpose, no peace till victory, no pact with unrepentant wrong." - Winston Churchill

It's the 28% of people who wouldn't vote for someone who married three times (as opposed to 18% who wouldn't vote for a Mormon according to the same polling outfit). While that may also weigh more heavily on so-cons, it will certainly be more evenly distributed between states than any bigotry issue. Moderates and independents don't like adulterers, where they have no problems with Mormons.

If we are comparing relative problems, your point with the polls should not be fifth in the series "The Trouble With Mitt Romney," but first in the series of "The Trouble With Rudy Giuliani."

I read you other 4 installments together, when you published the fourth. I read with particular interest because Mitt had just displaced Rudy as my top pick.

Now I really like Rudy because I can project that he would make a very good POTUS. That’s the theme, if you will, which organizes my investigation and choice of a candidate. The threatened ruination did cause me to take a harder look at Mitt. And as I did, my view of him changed. The negative stereotypes receded and I came to envision the man as a very good, maybe great, POTUS.

What is of objective interest here is that in my case, at least for the present, Mitt himself has succeeded in overcoming enough of the objectionable perceptions that you enumerate – and which had also inchoately framed my perception of him – to make me quite enthusiastic about him. This may say something about the major issue you raise: electability; but OTOH I may be highly unusual.

I’m curious. You have known Mitt far longer than this Georgia boy. Did you decide he would not make a good POTUS and perhaps that Rudy would make the best POTUS, and then subsequently examine the electability issues? Or did you first decide that he was not electable for all these reasons, and then pick Rudy?

I'd been leaning Rudy for quite a while, but really, my original thought on Mitt was just that a one-term governor who'd only won 1 election couldn't be a serious candidate; when I was deciding on a candidate it was really more between Rudy and McCain (I always thought George Allen would be a bust as a candidate - recall, this was back before Fred entered the picture). Then we had the flip-flops, and then we had the escalating lameness of Mitt's campaign. It's only after watching him on the national stage for a few months that I really moved from thinking he was an unserious candidate to believing that he'd be a major disaster for the party.

"No compromise with the main purpose, no peace till victory, no pact with unrepentant wrong." - Winston Churchill

I’m not cast in concrete, so I’ll continue examining him closely. Early on, I washed him out over his health-care solution, the lame life-long hunter episode, and his styled presentation. With his religion speech he showed me a patriotic depth and upon closer inspection I feel I can relate to the way his mind works. I kinda see him as problem solver and truth seeker with good values, one’s I share, but not much informed by political philosophy. Mostly I can make sense of all the flips which he accounts for along the lines of becoming more thoroughly informed. Some of his past positions still bother me, but his approach to life’s issues mirrors my own. I don’t track with Leon on number of things but perhaps I do on the sense that Mitt will govern in a way that represents my values.

The highest priority question I have is whether he can govern successfully. The executive role in business is exceedingly political. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I associate the lack of political experience you point to with risks regarding his ability to get elected and to build the party; not so much with governing. I see no reason to expect that he will do anything significant build the party. That’s on the negative side of the balance sheet but not highly significant to me, as long as he doesn’t break the party. The election itself is the ultimate test of his political ability. Rudy has a big advantage in that ability. Romney will have to learn fast and perhaps he is. I do find it a shame that Rudy has been handicapped by the protest-for-principle-vote.

All this to say that I will be watching for more evidence as to why Romney will not govern well if he succeeds in getting elected. On that aspect you convinced me only that there is some risk; but failed to shake my sense that there is also possibly great reward. But then again, I sort of expect you may be reluctant, for party reasons, to present an iron-clad case, if you have one, as to why he cannot govern.

Thanks for all your efforts on the subject and I will continue to entertain what you present.

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