Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Whence a Mormon President?

Will the first Mormon POTUS, if there ever is one, be a Democrat or a Republican? The knee-jerk response, of course, is that he or she will be a Republican because the Church is viewed primarily as a conservative institution and because far more Mormons are politically conservative than politically liberal (but it doesn't have to be that way!).

But digging a little deeper may reveal some interesting opposition to this notion, despite the decades of religious-type devotion Utahns and Mormons have shown to the Republican party.

There are currently six Mormon U.S. Senators, all from the West. It is well known at this point that Senate President Harry Reid is a Democrat and that the Utah Senators (Sen. Hatch and Sen. Bennett) are Republicans. Two of the remaining three Mormon Senators, however, are Democrats: the cousins Udall (Mark from Colorado and Tom from New Mexico). The other Mormon Senator is Idaho's Mike Crapo. That makes an even 3-3, with the tie-breaker going to the Democrats because they have the Senate President.

So it is apparent that a Mormon Democrat can be a viable candidate. The most interesting question, however, is whether a Mormon could ever be nominated for President in the Republican primary. This is a primary dominated by the religious right and Southern Baptist conservatives. John McCain, in 2000, ran a campaign that explicitly defied the political power of the religious right, going so far as to call Jerry Falwell an "agent of evil," and was defeated by George W. Bush, who explicitly ran to the religious right.

In 2008 John McCain changed his tone, courted the religious right, and won the nomination easily. Mitt Romney also explicitly courted the religious right, but didn't have a prayer. Between McCain and Huckabee, the Southern Baptists could easily overlook Romney for someone who was less Mormon. Huckabee famously fueled the flames of religious ire by asking the rhetorical and contextless question of whether Mormons believe that Jesus and Satan are brothers. He quickly retracted the statement, but the damage was done.

As a Democrat I am often angry at the way the extreme left of my party treats religion in general and Mormonism specifically. Part of the purpose of this blog is to prove that a Mormon can be a Democrat, but also that a Democrat can be a Mormon. But I wonder if there the same amount of anger that Mormon Republicans feel towards the extreme right of their party that distrusts Mormons and would, under no circumstances, support a Mormon president, even if he or she was conservative.

A Gallup poll taken in February 2007 attempted to gauge Americans' views of our religion. It showed that Mormons have a net -10 (42-52) favorability rating among Republicans, a smaller net -4 (43-47) among Democrats, and a net +8 (48-40) among independents. Protestants, who make up the vast majority of conservative voters, had a net -16 (36-52) view of Mormons, while Catholics had a net +25 (56-31), and those professing no religion had a net -7 (39-46). It is also the case that the more religious the person, the more negative view she has of Mormons. Again, the Republican party is dominated by more frequent church-goers. By all of these measures it appears that a Mormon is more likely to be voted in by Democrats and independents than by Republicans. By ideology, however, the reverse is true, in a big way. Those that consider themselves conservatives have a net -1 (44-45) favorability, while those that consider themselves liberal have a net -33 (28-61), and moderates have a net +8 (48-40) view of Mormons.

I'm not sure what to make of the fact that Mormons poll better among Democrats than Republicans, but worse among liberals than conservatives. That appears to be a contradiction and may even itself out between the two.

So what does all of this mean? First, don't hold your breath for a Mormon President any time soon from either party. Even though moderates and independents have a net positive view of Mormons, the more extreme wings of both parties do not, for different reasons entirely, and they decide who wins the nomination.

But there is no doubt right now that Democrats are currently doing more work appealing to independents and swing voters, while Republicans are having an internal debate about whether to become a more "big-tent" party or to establish an ideological purity, and the latter seems to be winning out. Given that, I think right now it might be more likely that a Mormon president be a Democrat than a Republican.


Nils Bergeson said...

Or perhaps we could see an Independent Moderate Mormon president? Then we wouldn't have to worry about the pesky primaries or the extremes of either party.

Dennis said...

There are some interesting things to think about here.

One thing to keep in mind, regarding Mormon Democratic senators, is that they are typically pro-life (or at least more moderate on this position) and also more opposed to gay marriage.

Clearly, a Democrat president can be opposed to gay marriage (e.g., Obama), but this may be less likely in the future, and even if not, the Mormon involvement in Prop 8 may really hurt any Democratic Mormon chances in a national election, even if they are in favor of gay marriage (and if so this would hurt them with many others).

Regarding abortion, every recent Democratic president has been pro-choice. This is a big reason why, I think, you see no presidential ambitions from Harry Reid (who is pro-life).

Another potential problem for a Democrat candidate is that they would probably need to get the vast majority of Mormon votes (it would make a big difference in the West). But could a Democrat do this, or would he/she be viewed suspiciously by the faithful?

Whatever the case, for a Mormon to be president, I think there needs to be (a) some changes in party configurations or (b) changes in LDS political attitudes. For a Democrat, both a and b.

What really is needed is a moderate, pro-life, pro-traditional marriage coalition among Mormons, Catholics, African Americans, and Latinos. A Mormon (like Jon Huntsman Jr., perhaps?) would be this group's natural leader.

Jacob S. said...

I'm just not sure if it is possible for an independent to become president. I'd love to see it some day just to give a jolt of reality to the political parties, but there is so much added advantage in prestige, money, organization, and power that goes along with political parties, I just don't think its possible to overcome that.

And as for the abortion position, that is absolutely a huge roadblock for a Mormon Democrat (who would presumably be pro-life). I was going to mention that and completely forgot. It might very well be the case that a Democratic presidential candidate, no matter his/her religious affiliation, must be pro-choice to be nominated.

Nils Bergeson said...

I absolutely agree that it would be nothing but an uphill battle for an independent to become president. Moreover, those who have ever made any sort of difference in an election as an independent were usually not Moderates, but rather more extreme on one end or the other.

In any case, I think it IS possible for an independent to win, but...they would need to #1 have money, and #2 have some sort of name recognition and have strong appeal to moderates on both sides of the aisle.

Doug said...

First of all a clarification: Mark Udall comes from Mormon roots, but does not call himself a Mormon. As far as I know he has not specified his religion.

I too am frequently frustrated by the way some progressives treat religion in general and Mormonism specifically. One of the progressive radio personalities I most admire frequently disseminates misinformation about the Church. Progressive blogs are full of comments that can only be viewed as bigotted regarding Mormons.

In today's polarized political climate I agree that the possibility is extremely remote that an active Mormon can be elected president. Perhaps someday the climate will improve, but not in the foreseeable future. That is not to say that a person with exceptional leadership skills, integrity, and charisma might not come to the fore.

Andrew said...

I've been contemplating a post on this very subject. While it's true that some liberal blogs pass on inaccurate information about the church from time to time, none of them quite trump the anti-Mormon institutions of the Bible Belt in either political power or ferocity.

I agree in principle that we're more likely to see a Democratic Mormon president than a Republican Mormon president, but I'm not sure about the details. There are pro-choice Mormons about (I'm one of them); I suspect as time goes on more of them will get involved in the political process at various levels. I think the dynamic very much depends on the individual. In my mind a truly moderate Republican like Huntsman could make a decent run, but wouldn't make it past the Republican primary unless the party looks dramatically different. None of the current LDS Democratic politicians are really in a position for a run at the Presidency, so all we can do is speculate. But I strongly believe that a Mormon Democrat could sell him or herself to most liberals if they did it in the right way.

peter said...

I don't know if we could have a Mormon president anytime soon. To answer your question Jake, as a conservative Republican I was extremely frustrated by the anti-Mormon bigotry espoused by Mike Huckabee and some of the other evangelicals during the last election. As someone who has always respected other beliefs, I have a hard time understanding where such a deep hate comes from.

I also may be an optimist, but I think that if the economic meltdown had happened a little earlier, Romney would have had a much better shot at the nomination. I also think that had he won the nomination, the Republican base would have gotten behind him because he is a good, Christian person.


ps. Andrew, I'm just curious how you reconcile being pro-choice with your LDS beliefs. This is an honest question.

Andrew said...

"Andrew, I'm just curious how you reconcile being pro-choice with your LDS beliefs. This is an honest question."

We can follow to the letter every guidance the Church has issued on Abortion if it is legal. There is no law anywhere that says you have to get an abortion under any circumstance. It's a similar situation with, say, drinking alcohol or smoking. Both activities are legal, even though I'll never do them. Making abortion legal in no way constrains my ability to act according to my conscience. Since I'm a dude, this is pretty easy because I'll never get an abortion. It is up to my wife (or future daughters) to decide for themselves what their conscience will allow and I want to afford them that right.

The Church supports abortion in the case where the life of the mother is at stake and in cases of rape and incest. Too many of the most vocal and powerful abortion foes don't want to allow abortion under even these restricted circumstances (and some are willing to kill over it). The greater evil, in my mind, is making women suffer because they can't get an abortion when they need one.

I cannot in good conscience align myself with a movement so wholly owned by its extreme elements. If it were a different era, perhaps I might think differently, but there is no "moderate" anti-abortion stance, really, outside of what a few Mormons think. In the South especially being extreme on the issue of abortion is seen as a virtue. As the national Republican party becomes (more and more) a regional party based in the South, its politics reflect this extremism.

Andrew said...

...Adding, I think a rather solid doctrinal case can be made (and by "solid" I mean as valid as any other point of view on the subject) that life begins (by that I mean the joining of body and spirit) with the first breath. I'll let the science on the issue play out before forming any sort of "rational" opinion, but if I had to place a bet that's where I'd place mine.

Dan said...

no doubt a Mormon could be president, from either party. It just takes the right combination of factors. I mean, did anyone think a black man with a Muslim name could POSSIBLY be president?

Mitt Romney could not (and still won't be able to) be president because he's too obvious in his attempts at pandering. He's not a good actor. He shows his cards too easily (take for instance a cringe worthy incident when he was meeting with a group of African Americans and he jarringly says "who let the dogs out." WTF?!?!?!

The chances, however, of a Mormon being president will continue to be slim due simply to demographics. It is the problem Jews face, even though Jews are fairly well respected in this country (today's terrorist incident at the Holocaust Museum notwithstanding). Joe Lieberman was close to being the first Jewish vice president in 2004.

In each primary for each party, what are the chances that a Mormon will compete for the nomination? Currently for the Democrats, I don't see a single Mormon in the wings. Of course, at this point, no Democrat is bothering with running for the nomination as the Democrats have a historic and popular president who will definitely shoot for a second term (and most likely get it).

On the Republican side, only Mitt Romney stands as a Mormon. Is there any other Mormon anywhere close to the level of publicity needed to compete as a nominee? Nope. And the reason is simply demographic. There just aren't enough Mormons in the country. The reason why you see lots of Baptists or Evangelicals or non-practicing general Christians is because there are lots and lots of them to choose from. It's just a matter of probabilities.

I hope to see more Mormons as Democrats or Republicans in the political scene. But to break through and really stand out takes a lot of time, or luck and talent.

Barack Obama managed to be both lucky and talented. He drew people to him based on his fantastic life story and what he stood for. It can happen for a Mormon too, but the probability is extremely low.

Anonymous said...

It'll have to be a moderate/centrist Democrat. Most Mormons will vote for him out of tribal loyalty. I don't expect to Republican base to vote for him, no matter what, because of his religion.

Matthew said...

Could A Mormon be president for now the answer is no but as attitudes change this could change? One thing I have thought about quite sincerely is this; should Mormon running for president be both interested in pleasing his church as well as his country other presidents have said no. JFK said that he would not use his office for church influence nor would he let the church influence his office. What im saying is the first Mormon president is going to have to separate himself from the church to a certain degree once Americans feel as if he or she is not in lock step with the church election will become more probable.