Romney + Mormons = Dukakis + Greeks

This is a great example of either reporters being spun or reporters doing their own spinning:

While Romney’s religion has typically been treated as a highly sensitive and in some ways taboo topic, some Republicans say it’s just a matter of simple ethnic politics — the same way an Italian-American or Jewish candidate would benefit from cultural solidarity in a political campaign.

“I think it’s very much like Catholics were in 1960 with JFK. It’s like, like him or not, here is our chance to be mainstreamed,” said Nevada conservative activist Chuck Muth, who supports Newt Gingrich but expects more than a few voters to “go with [Romney] simply because he’s part of their religion.”

Mormon support for Romney has rarely grabbed the spotlight of the 2012 campaign, but it has been present throughout, at his rallies and in his finance reports. From filling the seats at an event to upping the number of individual donations in a fundraising quarter, Romney has been able to count on a baseline of support that other candidates have lacked.

There’s nothing unusual about that in American politics — Kennedy and Joe Lieberman and, for that matter, Barack Obama — all had ethnic and religious followings that took special pride in their accomplishments. Romney’s just the first member of his faith to reach such political prominence.

The comparison between John Kennedy and Mitt Romney is laughable. Not laughable because of anything about the belief systems of Catholicism and Mormonism, or about the qualities or characteristics of Catholics and Mormons, or–for this discussion–because of Kennedy and Romney as candidates and men. And there is a reasonable analogy in the distrust of Kennedy’s Catholic faith and Romney’s Mormon faith. The reason it’s laughable is because the electoral strength of Mormons in 2012 is a tiny fraction of the strength of Catholics in 1960.

In 1960, about 22% of Americans were Catholic. Large swaths of the country had few or no Catholics, including just about all of the former states of the Confederacy except Louisiana. But Catholics–and in 1960, outside the Southwest border states, Catholics were almost entirely of European background–were a big share of the electorate in most of the big swing states of that era: Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin.

According to a 2008 report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (pdf), less than 2% of Americans are Mormons. Unlike Catholics in 1960, who were a big percentage of the population of just about every state from Minnesota to Maine, Mormons are highly concentrated in the Great Basin.

About 55% of Mormons are in four states that would only be competitive in a landslide: Utah, Idaho, California and Texas. In swing states, Mormons are about 7% of the population of Nevada and about 6% in Arizona. They’re less than 5% in the rest. In Iowa, North Carolina, Florida, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan Mormons are less than 1% of the population.

Even if Mormons were more dispersed, it wouldn’t help Romney much in a general election, because there’s almost no potential for growth. 74% of Mormons lean Republican, versus only 17% who lean Democratic. There’s also not much for Romney to gain through turnout the way there was for Obama with African-Americans. For Democrats, African-Americans are high-performance but not always high-turnout voters. For Republicans, even when a Mormon isn’t on the ballot, Mormons are consistently high-performance and high-turnout voters.

Mormons won’t be able to give Romney much of an extra boost with their votes. But he is helped by Mormon ties in a way similar to what Politico described as “ethnic politics — the same way an Italian-American or Jewish candidate would benefit from cultural solidarity in a political campaign.” While Mormon votes aren’t efficiently distributed to give him any supra-partisan advantage in a general election, Mormons voting in a bloc can have a big effect in the smaller electorates of primary elections, and especially in caucuses. More importantly for the general, the community’s pride that a Mormon might be president will most likely lead Mormons to donate generously to Romney’s campaign.

It’s not that long ago that a major party candidate who was neither Protestant or Catholic was helped tremendously with generous donations from a proud community that was concentrated heavily in states unlikely to be competitive in the general election. Like Mitt Romney, he was a former governor. And like Mitt Romney, he was from Massachusetts. The Greek community rallied for Michael Dukakis–and later, less decisively to Paul Tsongas–and helped him secure one of the major party nominations for president. Mitt Romney may fare better than Michael Dukakis, but like Dukakis and his fellow Greeks, the solidarity and support from Romney’s fellow Mormons will mean much less in a general election that did Kennedy’s support from Catholics and Obama’s support from African-Americans.

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