Geraghty: If Mitt's the nominee, lefty bigots won't be able to stop themselves; Update: Readers sound off on why they won't vote for a Mormon

True enough but would it matter?

A while back, one of my Romney guys said that in a general election showdown between his man and Hillary Clinton, there are two “landmine” moments. One is if Romney (or any male candidate, for that matter) says or does anything that sounds the slightest bit sexist.

As we’ve seen, facing tough questioning from moderators and criticism from rivals was enough to get Team Hillary to play “they’re piling on to a woman!” card already.

The second “landmine” moment would be, he suggested, if she says or does anything that appears critical of Romney’s faith. Looking at Robert Redford’s comments about Mormons from earlier today [See here. — ed.], I wonder if Romney vs. Hillary could be a matchup that would turn out quite well for the GOP…

I suspect that if Romney were to get the nomination, we would hear a great deal from those folks about just what’s wrong with “those” Mormons, and the rhetoric would be ugly enough to match the seething disdain, and irrational bigotry lurking in the hearts of the intemperate. Somebody ought to set up a pool to guess which figure makes the first horrific statement painting all Mormons with a broad brush: Rosie O’Donnell? Bill Maher? Michael Moore? Keith Olbermann? Frank Rich?

I doubt whether Frank Rich making a crack about Mormon undergarments would be enough to move the polls (although it would be primo blog fodder), but Jim’s right that that sort of thing is bound to happen. What if it does? Well, first, if someone like Maher goes after Mormons, he’s more likely to do so in the context of denigrating Christianity as a whole, e.g. “Sure, Mormonism’s weird, but is it any weirder than the Catholic Church?” Americans are generally willing to tolerate anti-religious sentiment so long as it’s not focused on a “minority” faith. Second, reporters who want to inject this sort of thing without taking too much responsibility for it have an easy dodge available by framing it in terms of what Americans, not they themselves, allegedly believe. (“Romney leads in Iowa and New Hamphire but Americans may find his belief in some of the more eccentric aspects of LDS theology suspicious.”)

Third, there’s a huge open question about how solidly conservatives would be willing to line up behind Mitt on the religious issue if he’s attacked for it. Most will do so, partly out of decency, partly out of conservative tribalism, and partly out of sheer outrage at the left for being such filthy intolerant hypocrites, but the fact is that there are parts of the right-wing base even now who are warning him not to go around pretending like he’s “one of us.” (See this poll from September and compare Mormons’ numbers to Muslim Americans’.) The left may sense an opening there to peel some of them away; the trick would be to cast enough aspersions on Mormonism to scare off those voters without casting so many that even centrist Democrats become disgusted by the tactic. There are faiths that would disqualify a candidate who belonged to them in many voters’ eyes, Scientology being the most obvious example. The task for Hillary et al. would be to legitimize that calculus in voters’ minds and get them to thinking where Mormonism falls on the spectrum between Dianetics and the Bible. A scummy tactic but not hard to imagine.

One other point. While both sexism and anti-Mormonism may be landmines, the former is much bigger than the latter, needless to say. A crack about Hillary’s gender won’t peel off any Democrat-leaners the way an aspersion cast on Mormonism might among Republican-leaners; on the contrary, it would surely peel off a few women who’d planned on voting Republican (and potentially more than a few, depending upon how snide it was). Revisit this poll from February and compare the relevant categories: Americans overwhelmingly accept a woman candidate but they’re a bit more circumspect about Mormons, suggesting that they view anti-woman sentiment as essentially irrational but are a smidge more nuanced when it comes to LDS. That helps the left, but at 72%, thankfully not as much as it might.

Update: Martin Frost asked his readers whether they’d vote for a Mormon candidate. Most said they would — but not all. Click to see what Mitt’s up against. Objections to LDS’s alleged racism, its hierarchical nature, even the underwear. My favorite:

Jessica Elliott: “I can’t speak for all Christians or all Republicans, but I can give you an honest perspective from one average Christian mom who would never vote for a Mormon. You understand already that many people call Mormonism a cult. What you may not understand is that many of us see Mormonism as such a strange, ridiculous belief system that we have to seriously doubt the judgment of anyone who could believe it. It’s like asking us to consider voting for someone who believes they were kidnapped by aliens.”

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