Jan 23, 2012

How could one measure anti-Mormonism?

So, is Mitt Romney's Mormonism a problem with the Republican electorate?

It's long been speculated that evangelicals wouldn't vote for a Latter-day Saint. Speculated and speculated and speculated. With his loss in South Carolina, his religion has come up again as a reason for his unpopularity. For some, it's apparently obvious that his faith is his problem.

Mark Silk writes, for example, "What happened in South Carolina is really pretty simple. The Mormon Gap killed Mitt Romney."

A Romney supporter interviewed on NPR this morning said essentially the same thing. His Mormonism, she said, is "gonna hurt him all kinds of places. That exact part of his life is going to hurt him in many places."

I'm not so sure, though.

It's easy to attribute bias to other people. It's harder to determine if it's actually true.

It seems like there should be some way to actually test for anti-Mormon sentiment, but seems, too, that basically those who speculate this is the key issue keeping voters from voting for the Mormon are just basing that on their assumptions about other people's prejudice.

Is it anti-Mormon bias keeping self-identified evangelicals from voting for Romney? We know that 88 percent of them in South Carolina didn't vote for the former governor of Massachusetts, but how do we know that anti-Mormon bias is the reason?

Certainly there have been some high-profile people who've said evangelicals can't vote for Romney specifically because of his Mormonism, but given that evangelicals aren't exactly following lock-step the recommendations of their purported leaders, I'm not sure we can conclude anything from those statements.

We know, too, that evangelicals tend to say that Mormonism isn't a problem for them. But that's exactly the trickiness with bias: those who have it generally deny they do. I don't see why we should just take people's word for it that they're not biased. Everyone thinks they're more objective than they are. Conversely, asking evangelicals whether or not they're squeamish about the Latter-day Saints isn't exactly enough to go on either. Evangelicals are squeamish about a lot of things, especially when it comes to other people's theology, but there's no necessary connection between that unease and their behavior.

It's better to test for behavior. There has to be someway to actually check for actions, rather than just speculating about anti-Mormon bias.

So how could we actually do that? Is there a way to actually measure anti-Mormonism? What would a test look like that tried to ferret out anti-Mormon bias?

Ideally, one would run two candidates in the South Carolina GOP primary who were identical except for their religion. Is there a way to run a test that would functionally do that?

(Note: Some of the best thinking on the question of Romney's Mormonism has come from Joanna Brooks, aka "Mormon Girl," who's work is always worth reading. On this topic of anti-Mormon bias, see especially: "Thinking Clearly About Anti-Mormon Prejudice," "A Frustrated Romney Loses Lead in SC," and "How Not to React to Anti-Mormon Sentiment in the South.")