On Being a Mormon Candidate in America

Not yet twenty-four hours after Mitt Romney announced the end of his campaign, we’ve already seen several people telling him what he did wrong. Most of these post-mortems are limited by their failure to view the race as it was when Romney got in it. The consensus now seems to be that he sealed his fate by running to the right, acting the part of the red-meat conservative instead of the brainy technocrat with the ability to fix our country as if it were a slightly larger version of Dominoes Pizza. But a year ago, when Mitt Romney was receiving raves at the CPAC conference and being hailed as the perfect answer to the inevitability that enveloped Giuliani and McCain (depending on who you asked), that kind of advice would have sounded pathetically misguided.

What the commentators aren’t remembering were both the anonymity of Mitt Romney and the gaping hole on the right end of the GOP field. The man needed a niche to fill, and that niche was there for the taking. One more thoughtful moderate refusing to speak to the base would have flamed out instantly, and Romney was smart enough to know where he could fit in. But he wasn’t smart enough to anticipate the less visible, but far more serious threat to his candidacy- the rise of the “Authentic Christian Leader.”

Long before Mike Huckabee, there was plenty of talk about whether a Mormon could be elected president. Many doubted, and the polls seemed to back them up. But for the optimists (of whom Mitt Romney was one), there was abundant counter-evidence. Those same polls showed voter resistance to a “Mormon candidate” steadily decreasing from spring to summer to fall. Romney saw a corresponding bump in his numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire. For every big story in the mainstream press about nutty Mormon beliefs, there were three or four small-town papers running pieces on the very normal, upstanding Mormons in their own communities. The press became better informed about Romney’s faith, and slowly stopped mentioning it in every story about the “Mormon candidate.” Romney had a chance.

And then a former Baptist Preacher rode into town and everything fell apart. In a field of nine candidates on the GOP side, Mike Huckabee distinguished himself from the third-tier with a twinkling personality and an occasional laugh line, but few could have said early on that he had anymore going for him than a Duncan Hunter or a Sam Brownback. Somehow he survived when those others faded, and he started looking for his own niche in the race as well.

Surprisingly, he found that niche right about where Mitt Romney had already staked his own claim. There were differences in their positions, but on social issues, there was little daylight between them. But where Romney spoke in terms of policy and data, Huckabee posed as an “Authentic Christian Leader,” and alluded to the source of his campaign’s strength as “not human“. Romney consistently refused to run on religion (which most agreed would have hurt him, had he tried), while Huckabee bragged about holding a theology degree (later repudiated) and sniggered about obscure Mormon doctrine (later equivocated). And surprisingly, despite myriad opportunities, Mike Huckabee never once said anything to signal to anyone that holding Mitt Romney’s religion against him would be a bad thing.

Every candidate seeks to emphasize those parts of his own character that illuminate unattractive contrasts with his opponents. When it looked like 71 year old McCain might be the frontrunner, Romney ran an ad of himself jogging vigorously. When Romney was ascendant, Thompson emphasized his own “consistent” conservatism.  In that same vein, Mike Huckabee’s explicitly Christian campaign can only be viewed as another contrast technique. He did not attack Mitt Romney’s religion, but he did everything he could possibly have done to exploit it covertly. His Bible-thumping campaign (which continues today, via the widow’s mite and the smooth stones), completely lacking in any depth of foreign policy prescriptions, economic sophistication, and general discipline took off like a rocket, and the Romney camp never knew what hit it.

Could Romney have lost Iowa if he hadn’t been a Mormon? Sure. He had plenty other negatives, most importantly his inability to escape the flip-flopper charge (which was later shown to resonate far more with those who view Mormonism suspiciously than by those who do not). But the fact is, he lost Iowa because of the religious rise of Mike Huckabee, and the religious rise of Mike Huckabee happened because voters never got comfortable with Mitt Romney.

That discomfort was repeated in almost every subsequent contest. In New Hampshire, the polls had him neck and neck with, or barely behind McCain, but he finished several percentage points back. In Florida, several polls projected Romney as the winner, but he lost there too, by five points. Romney led California in many polls, and promised at least a very competitive finish, but ended up winning in only three counties in the entire state. Even the exit polls on Super Tuesday suggested he might win Delaware, which he lost badly, and could threaten in Arizona, which he never did. Georgia and Missouri were also within his reach, but ended up far from it in the end. In state after state, Mitt Romney was projected as a winner or contender, but he always finished below expectations in each contest.

Meanwhile, a national consensus emerged that Mike Huckabee’s campaign was now worse than futile.  So when conservative pundits began calling for a wholesale abandonment of John McCain, most in the national media assumed McCain’s loss would be Romney’s gain.  But for some reason, those who listened to Rush et. al. walked away from McCain and into the arms of the Baptist candidate that didn’t have a chance.  When all those pundits said to vote against McCain, all those Southern voters decided they could do so only if it wouldn’t mean they’d have to vote for a Mormon.  So they found a completely unworkable candidate instead.

Political scientists agree that black candidates can always expect to finish worse than the polls predict. This is likely because more people claim to be open to voting for black candidates than are actually willing to do so. The surprising disparity between the expectations set for Romney in each state and his actual performances raises questions about whether Mormons share that same disadvantage. After 2008, there can be no doubt of such a disadvantage when running against an evangelical in an evangelical region.

Of course, it’s hard to argue with the impulse to vote for someone like yourself. And evangelicals weren’t alone in doing so, as evidenced by the huge percentage of Nevadan Mormons that voted for Romney, and the enormous win Romney got in Utah. But there is a difference between Mormon support for Romney, and evangelical support for Huckabee. Mormons are a small, self-conscious minority in America, and as such may be expected to get a thrill from seeing one of their own perform well. Many Mormons have noted a real sense that their own acceptance in the American mainstream seemed at stake in the Romney campaign. The same cannot be said for mainstream evangelical Christianity, a huge, entrenched force in American religious and political life. In such a large, secure group, the rejection of like-minded outsiders looks like stubborn xenophobia, not simple in-group boosterism. In short, while one never wants to see votes given out based on identity, there’s a world of difference between hoping your little group is well represented by its rare success story, and exploiting your group’s dominant position by excluding all others from consideration.

Just like in all the best political scandals, there will also be plausible deniability here.  Romney might have lost because of his religion, but it could have been because of his flip-flops, or because he didn’t have a core, or because he just seemed too perfect.  But the scandal is that even those charges were inextricably linked to his Mormonism.  We’ve noted that the flip-flopper charge was the favored attack of admitted anti-Mormons.  The famed “lack of a core” only works when you refuse to credit Romney for his passionate lifelong commitment and contribution to his faith.  And the “too perfect” meme is just a low-level reference to his abstinence from drinking, cussing, and general uncouthness, and to his photogenic Mormon family.  Fred Thompson the successful actor with the beautiful wife, and Barack Obama, the dynamo with the darling family, never seemed to be too perfect for America.  But for some reason, Mitt Romney was.

In the final analysis, most people who voted for Mike Huckabee probably didn’t do it out of hatred for Mormons.  It’s just that many of them saw Huckabee’s religion as one of the most salient reasons to support him.  And Huckabee’s voracious appetite for that kind of support provided easy cover for anyone wanting a way out of voting for a Mormon.

After all is said and done, the big question remains unanswered, and probably will remain so for a very long time.  Mormons have watched an unbelievably successful man who seemed created for the presidency rejected by America, and will always wonder why that happened.  No one who paid attention can reject out of hand the notion that his religion had something to do with it.  And Mormons, will carry on with revived uneasiness about their place in this country.  One hopes that new bridges will be built and new alliances forged.  But those bridges will likely be built, as they were in the past, in support of other candidates, where Mormon support is needed but Mormon leadership never contemplated.  One wonders if such bridges can ever be as strong after 2008.