It's often taken for granted that Christian conservatives' uneasiness with Mormonism best explains why Mitt Romney has struggled to win-over those voters.
In Inside the Circus, a new e-book about the 2012 campaign by Politico's Mike Allen and Evan Thomas, the Romney campaign is depicted as so consumed with worry that the candidate's faith would hurt him with the evangelicals that dominated the Iowa caucuses that it failed to anticipate Rick Santorum's rise. "Part of the reason for the ceiling [of support], quite frankly, is the Mormon thing," a Romney aide told the authors. "If he was even an Episcopalian, he'd be better off today."
Negative perceptions of Mormonism so worried Romney's 2008 presidential team that, according to Politico, "the dilemma had its own acronym in campaign power point presentations: TMT (That Mormon Thing)."
Of course, Romney's ideologically malleability and political opportunism -- not his faith -- has always been his biggest liability with conservatives. But the Mormon angle allowed the media to portray conservatives as bigoted theocrats.
The media's preoccupation with anti-Mormon sentiment on the right has distracted from what is arguably a much more pervasive anti-Mormonism on the secular left.
Reams of polling data make clear that anti-Mormonism is not exclusively, or even predominantly, a problem on the right. A 2011 Gallup poll found that 27% of Democrats said they wouldn't vote for a Mormon of their own party for president, 50% more than the 18% of Republicans who felt that way. In a Quinnipiac survey, 46% of Democrats said they wouldn't be comfortable with a Mormon president, while 29% of Republican respondents felt similarly.
And a Pew poll found that 31% of Democrats and 23% Republicans said they would be less likely to support a candidate if he were Mormon. The poll also found that the more liberal the respondent, the more anti-Mormon they were. Forty-one percent of liberal Democrats said they would be less likely to support a Mormon candidate.
Given these findings, it's no wonder that, since becoming the Republican Party's presidential nominee in waiting, Mitt Romney -- lifelong LDS member, former Mormon Bishop, Stake President and lay minister -- has been under attack for his beliefs from liberals in the media.
Writing in New York magazine in January, Frank Rich heralded the liberal attacks on Romney’s Mormonism as "the big dog that has yet to bark, and surely will by October."
October is a political eternity away. Slate's Jacob Weisberg has written that Romney's Mormonism should disqualify him for the presidency. Other liberal writers, including the New York Times' Maureen Dowd and Charles Blow, have mocked Romney's Mormonism as well.
Earlier this month, MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell said:
"Mormonism was created by a guy in Upstate New York in 1830 when he got caught having sex with the maid and explained to his wife that God told him to do it. Forty-eight wives later, Joseph Smith's lifestyle was completely sanctified in the religion he invented to go with it, which Mitt Romney says he believes."
Republicans are concerned that with Romney as their nominee, the anti-Mormon attacks will only get worse. Last week Mormon Republican Senator Orrin Hatch said that the Obama reelection team would "throw the Mormon Church at [Romney] like you can't believe."
The Obama campaign insists it won't raise Romney's Mormonism as a campaign issue. "Attacking a candidate's religion is out of bounds, and our campaign will not engage in it," Ben Labolt, a spokesman for Obama's reelection campaign, told the Huffington Post in November. But it may not have to if its proxies in the media and elsewhere do the attacking.
The left's hostility toward Mormonism has less to do with church doctrine and much more to do with the doctrines of conservatism to which most Mormons strictly adhere.
Even though Romney will be attacked for his church's past racism and polygamy, and for some of its more exotic religious practices, such as baptizing dead Holocaust victims, the left's real problem with Mormonism is that its members are the most reliably conservative religious group in the country. Six in ten identify as politically conservative, and less than one in ten as liberal. They are pro-life, pro-family and pro traditional marriage.
In 2008, Mormons marshaled millions of dollars in donations to support Proposition 8, California's traditional marriage ballot initiative. After Prop 8 passed, LDS activism prompted attacks from gay groups and others. Mormon temples were vandalized. Two received envelopes containing white powder. Prominent Mormon donors in the arts were blacklisted. Tom Hanks labeled the Mormon Church "un-American."
Romney has spent the entire campaign downplaying his faith for fear that it will alienate him from the Christian right. Now, with the nomination battle behind him, prominent Republicans are reportedly advising Romney to "own his Mormonism" -- to open up and talk about his faith and how it informs his policy agenda.
But Romney should beware: he has more to fear from the secular left, whose anti-Mormonism will likely intensify as the 2012 general election campaign moves forward.