WASHINGTON – Despite Mitt Romney’s passionate plea for voters to look beyond doctrinal differences between his Mormon faith and other Christian religions, a new poll shows virtually no change in Americans’ willingness to cast a ballot for a Mormon candidate.
A Gallup poll conducted in the days after Romney’s much-anticipated Mormon speech last week shows about 17 percent of Americans still are less inclined to vote for a Mormon candidate of their own party, about the same as a March poll asking the same question.
Romney, who has been slipping in polls to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, addressed critics of his Mormon faith on Thursday, saying he would not distance himself from the religion to appease critics but that he also would not take orders from the Salt Lake City-based church if elected.
Romney talked of returning religion to the public square but also highlighted an American tradition of religious tolerance and mutually shared values during the much-hyped speech that drew international news coverage and focused an intense spotlight on the LDS Church.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., like most other Utah public officials, praised the speech, calling it “brilliantly delivered.”
But he said it was unfortunate that “one population” – referring to evangelicals active in the Republican Party – has so dominated the nominating process that Romney had to give it.
“It isn’t where I thought we would be in 2008,” Huntsman, a John McCain supporter, said in an interview. “I thought it was unfortunate that in today’s world the body politic . . . is to the point where someone had to stand up and give that speech.”
The Gallup poll, the first to judge voters’ feelings nationally after Romney’s address at the George Bush Presidential Library, shows a nominal change in concerns about voting for a Mormon after the speech.
About 19 percent of voters in March said they would be less likely to vote for a qualified candidate who happened to be Mormon, down from a high of 24 percent in a February poll. But polls in April 1967 (when Romney’s father, George, ran for president) and in February 1999 (when Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Mormon, ran) showed 17 percent of voters unwilling to cast a ballot for a Mormon.
Costas Panagopoulos, an assistant professor of political science at Fordham University in New York City, said it’s extremely difficult to change people’s minds and no one should expect a sweeping change in polls.
“We’re really talking about perceptions that are embedded in the minds of the voters and that have existed for a very long time,” Panagopoulos said. “To be fair to Governor Romney, it would take a lot more than one speech, or even a few presentations of that sort, to even start to even cut into those perceptions.”
Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said people have been agreeing or disagreeing about religion and the issue of faith in the public square for thousands of years.
“To think that one speech is going to change all that is just a bit too ambitious,” he said.
“I think the residual effect of the speech is that many people will have a new level of respect for Governor Romney and his courage to speak out on the issue,” Madden added. “Even if they disagree with his perspective, I do believe that they recognized his deep conviction and eloquence on the topic.”
The Gallup poll – conducted Dec. 6-9 and which carries a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points – also shows a steady number of Americans, 16 percent, have a “very unfavorable” opinion of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As far as those not willing to support a well-qualified Mormon for office, the percentage differs little by party affiliation in the latest poll. Adults surveyed by Gallup showed less interest in voting for a Mormon than voting for a person of Jewish faith, a woman or a Latino. But Mormon candidates would fare better than one who is homosexual or an atheist.