Matt Lewis

Mormon problem?: Gingrich nearly twice as popular among Protestants as Romney

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor

Perhaps you’ve heard about the new Pew Research Center survey, which shows that about a third of Americans — and about the same fraction of GOP voters — view Mormonism as being outside the Christian faith.

Pew reasons that this could hurt former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in the GOP primary, “but not for the general election,” because Republican voters would presumably be willing to overlook his faith in order to defeat Obama.

One poll, of course, can always be an anomaly, but another poll released on November 22 by Quinnipiac, tends to reinforce the notion that Romney’s faith could, indeed, play a major role in the primaries this year.

Take a look at the Quinnipiac crosstabs for white Republican/Republican leaners:

The disparity between Romney’s Catholic and non-Catholic support is — by far — the most glaring difference shown above (though the discrepancy of Romney support between college graduates and non-college graduates is also stark). The two frontrunners are tied among Catholics, but (in the current multi-candidate field) Gingrich enjoys an 11 point lead among Protestants — and a 13 point lead among “Born-Again/Evangelicals”).

But it gets worse.

Given a binary choice between Romney and Gingrich, the gap widens, with Gingrich nearly doubling Romney’s support among Protestants (leading him by a 27 point margin).

It is hard to say for certain why Romney performs as well as Gingrich (a Catholic convert) among Catholics — but it isn’t entirely surprising. First, it’s unclear how many people realize Gingrich is a Catholic. Second, Romeny’s Catholic support isn’t exactly new. It was a source of frustration for Sam Brownback — another Catholic convert — who found himself losing out to Romney (at least, in terms of garnering the early support of prominent Catholic backers and donors) in 2008.

One obvious, if inside baseball, explanation for Romney’s success with this cohort might simply be that he has surrounded himself with prominent Catholic advisers and aides, such as Peter Flaherty.

A more likely answer, however, might simply be that Catholics — having previously endured persecution in America — are much less likely to cavalierly assign “cult” status to the LDS church. Way before conservatives began flocking to Romney as a last resort in 2008, National Review magazine, a site started by devout Catholic William F. Buckley, endorsed Romney for president. And, as you might recall, it was Bill Bennett — a Catholic — who publicly criticized Evangelical leader Robert Jeffress for his remarks about Mitt Romney at the Values Voter summit in October.

There, of course, may be other factors such as geography and culture at play here, as well. It might be that conservative rural southerners are turned off by Mitt Romney’s style — and that most conservative rural southerners just happen to be Protestant. Additionally, anecdotally speaking, Catholic conservatives in America tend to be more intellectual than their Protestant brethren, meaning Romney’s style — irrespective of his faith — might naturally appeal to them more than, say, Rick Perry, for instance.

Still, it’s hard to deny — in lieu of Pew and Quinnipiac — that Romney’s faith is an issue.  And when one considers the importance that a state like South Carolina might play in determining the GOP nominee, it could be a major factor.

Note: I have long been skeptical of the notion that Romney’s faith matters. There are so many legitimate reasons for conservatives to oppose him, the notion that his faith would matter seemed absurd. But, based on the polling, I’m starting to think it will, in fact, be an issue he must overcome if he is to win the nomination…