McCain: Let's face it, there was some sort of anti-Mormon element to that South Carolina vote

A little token of affection for South Carolinians from the guy they chose over Mitt Romney four years ago.

“We haven’t had time to do a real analysis of the Romney race in South Carolina, but once we break that down, there was some element of anti-Mormonism in that vote,” McCain asserted. “I’m not saying all of it, but there were elements there. There was nothing that Mitt Romney could have done.”

Could that bias, if it exists, extend beyond the Palmetto State to others in the South if the primary drags on? “I’m not sure [but] I don’t think so,” McCain said, pointing to Georgia as one place he doesn’t believe would hold Romney’s religion against him.

McCain cited the possible anti-Mormonism in response to a query about the growing Tea Party support Gingrich has begun to draw, particularly in Florida.


Interesting that it was a question about tea partiers that spurred Maverick to raise the possibility of religious prejudice; I wonder what his former running mate thinks of that. Note that he’s careful here not to allege that anti-Mormonism was decisive in Gingrich’s win, but if he didn’t think it was a significant factor he wouldn’t have brought it up. Is he right? Well, go back and look at the polls in SC over the final week of the campaign. On January 16, just five days before the primary, Rasmussen had Romney up by 14 points. The Fox News debate with the exchange between Newt and Juan Williams was held that night; two days later, Politico’s new poll found Romney’s lead cut in half. That was the last poll in which Gingrich trailed. Other polls taken on the 18th showed him leading Romney narrowly and then, after the CNN debate on the 19th in which he unloaded on John King, his numbers took off and he ended up winning by 13 points. Was anti-Mormonism a major contributing factor to a 27-point swing in five days even though no one of any significance was talking about Romney’s faith? Seriously?

To the extent that McCain is basing this on anything, I think he’s extrapolating from the exit-poll data. This data set got some attention on election night:

Romney finishes dead last among the “a great deal” crowd. But is that because they’re anti-Mormon specifically or just pro-Christian generally? You’d expect devout believers of any religious group to have a preference for candidates who share their faith, and in this case Romney’s being squeezed between the frontrunner and a famously socially conservative Christian candidate in Santorum. In fact, he actually finished second, ahead of Santorum, among evangelicals:


He does markedly better among non-evangelicals, but that gets us into the question of how much these religious demographics overlap with ideological demographics. Do evangelicals prefer Newt because he’s not a Mormon or do evangelicals prefer Newt because they tend to be more conservative generally and think Newt is more conservative than Romney? More data:

Would have been nice if the pollsters had included religious beliefs as an option there, but note how well Newt performs in three of these categories. He won the race by 13 points but he’s 15 points ahead on experience, 36 points ahead on conservative convictions, and he’s got a clear majority on the crucial issue of electability. (Newt himself attributed his win to changing perceptions of which candidate is most electable.) The only category in which he collapses is moral character. If there was some strong current of anti-Mormon sentiment out there on election day, how likely is it that it would have gravitated to the guy who finished rock bottom in the “character” department? Or is McCain suggesting that the hypothetical anti-Mormon voters who would have/should have otherwise gone to Mitt actually flowed to Santorum? Hard for me to believe that Santorum’s voters would have broken for the guy from Massachusetts who was pro-choice until about five years ago, but oh well.

One more data point:

I think that’s the real snapshot of who won and why. The further right you go on the ideological spectrum, the more appealing Newt is vis-a-vis Romney. Nothing surprising about that, from the contrast between Gingrich’s budget-balancing as Speaker and Romney’s enactment of RomneyCare in Massachusetts to Gingrich’s populist tactics of hammering “media elites” to the yawning gap in their respective abilities to articulate the conservative vision. There’s a reason why Mark Steyn’s parody of Romney’s stump speech resonated with so many readers, after all, and it ain’t because they’re anti-Mormon. But nice job by McCain to inject this poisonous issue into an already bitter primary. It’s simultaneously insulting to the heavy majority of primary voters who have nothing against Romney’s faith and risky for Mitt insofar as it introduces the subject to some in the small minority who might. Dumb.


Update: Here’s Gallup’s national poll on anti-Mormon sentiment from last June. There are, assuredly, some Republicans who won’t vote for Romney because of his faith — although, if Gallup is right, anti-Mormon sentiment is higher among Democrats (and independents) than it is among the GOP. Nationally, 18 percent of Republicans say they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon, but that’s in the abstract, not in the context of a specific choice between two or three candidates. Remember that even Robert Jeffress, who called Mormonism a “cult,” said that he’d support Romney over Obama if forced to. There may be some voters who would prefer not to vote for a Mormon but who end up voting for Mitt in the primaries anyway simply because they find Gingrich and Santorum unelectable and/or otherwise unacceptable.

In any case, I’m not sure why McCain seems to think this problem is especially significant in South Carolina, even vis-a-vis other southern states like Georgia. The south wasn’t even the region that polled highest for anti-Mormon sentiment in Gallup’s poll. It was the midwest, at 26 percent.

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David Strom 7:00 AM | May 18, 2024