An old Amy Sullivan article for Washington Monthly on Romney’s “evangelical problem” from 2005 included this interesting tidbit that has lessons for Ryan Sager and Romneyites alike:
These latent evangelical concerns about Mormonism don’t pose much of a problem in the general course of political and social life. In the real dynamics of a campaign, though, they are huge vulnerabilities, waiting to be exploited. To see how this might happen, take a look at the 2002 gubernatorial race in Arizona. In that campaign, Democratic state attorney general Janet Napolitano faced popular Republican congressman Matt Salmon for the open governor’s seat. A month before election day, the race was neck-and-neck, when a third-party candidate named Dick Mahoney began running a television commercial that raised Salmon’s Mormonism in the context of a Mormon fundamentalist sect that openly practices polygamy on the Arizona/Utah border. The ad was offensive and was immediately denounced by religious and political leaders. It was also effective.
On election day, Salmon lost to Napolitano by a razor-thin margin. Napolitano won in part by picking up votes among moderate female voters, but also because Salmon ran far behind congressional candidates in the most conservative and heavily evangelical districts. In each of these precincts, his support was between 10 and 20 points lower than right-wing congressmen Trent Franks and Jeff Flake. Exit polls aren’t available for 2002, but a look at the precinct results makes it clear that some of these conservative voters must have even split their tickets, casting a vote for Napolitano while also backing the extremely conservative congressional candidate.
When trying to understand how Arizona, once the land of Goldwater, has become Janet Napolitano’s fiefdom, her narrow victory over Matt Salmon evidently thanks to the effect of a third party’s egregious (and false) anti-Mormon attack is instructive. Democratic control of the Arizona governorship in 2002 did not come about because the GOP alienated libertarians through big spending and religion. Anti-Mormonism broke the GOP in Arizona in 2002, and effectively handed the Governor’s Mansion in Phoenix to the Dems for eight years.
In 2002, any evidence of the themes of religion and big spending during the Bush Era had not yet become fully formed in any case, and 2002 was the year of the first Khaki Election. In neighbouring New Mexico, Richardson won anyway, because all but die-hard partisans would have sooner voted for Richardson than the nobody state senator, John Sanchez, the GOP ran against him. In Arizona, the Democrats very nearly lost, and we might have talking about Matt Salmon’s re-election this past fall but for the crippling weakness of visceral, ignorant anti-Mormon sentiment among Salmon’s own partisans.
This means that at least two of the five governorships Ryan Sager takes as evidence of libertarian defections into the Democratic camp because of GOP excesses in religion and big government went over to the Democratic side for entirely different reasons. It also means that the explosive potential for visceral anti-Mormonism in a generally ignorant voting public is huge and may add to the already tremendously large numbers of people who have already said that they will not support a Mormon for President.
Another instructive lesson from the Salmon episode:
Salmon lost evangelical votes at the polls even though he enjoyed the backing of evangelical leaders, some of whom denounced the anti-Mormon ads. Arizona Republic political columnist Rob Robb told me that Salmon’s support from evangelical leaders “did not translate into support among evangelicals at the grassroots.” “Around here,” he said, echoing my childhood experience, “evangelicals are regularly instructed that Mormonism is a cult.”
This is why the roll-call of evangelical leaders who have so far shown their willingness to consider Romney’s candidacy may ultimately be meaningless. Falwell and Bauer et al. can talk about how they don’t care about Romney’s theology and how they want to focus on the issues all they like, but the people who normally heed their words will still withhold their support.
Separately, here was one line from the article that serves as a priceless example of how quickly things can change in politics:
It’s hard to see evangelicals lining up behind Romney instead of, say, Virginia Sen. George Allen.
This is from September 2005, so at the time Allen did look like a formidable competitor for the nomination. Can it really have been as recently as one year ago that people still took George Allen seriously as a major player on the national stage? What a hoot!