To Win Iowa, Mitt Romney Needs to Find Its Anti-Mormon Voters—Then Ignore Them

The new science of winning campaigns.
Dec. 5 2011 1:26 PM

Searching for the Mormon Haters

To win Iowa, Mitt Romney needs to find new supporters. But first he needs to figure out which voters to ignore completely.

Mitt Romney.
Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney arrives for the Des Moines Register Presidential Debate Dec. 12, 2007

Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Introducing Victory Lab, a new Slate column. During the 2012 race, Sasha Issenberg will explore the secret science driving political campaigns, and the tacticsrather than the strategiesthat will determine who wins.

Sasha Issenberg Sasha Issenberg

Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab about the new science of political campaigns.

Mitt Romney has decided to go all-in to win Iowa, based on the assumption that even after five years of campaigning in the state there is still room for his support to grow. Romney will have to add as many as 8,000 voters to the number he won in 2008—enlisting those who backed other candidates last time, have remained undecided this year, or are altogether new to caucusing. Polls have shown Romney’s support in Iowa to be amazingly steady since his second-place finish to Mike Huckabee—even as his opponents have changed and he has recalibrated his pitch to run now as a CEO candidate uninterested in picking fights about cultural issues—and the campaign’s private research suggests the demographic profile of a Romney backer has remained constant over those four years as well. Romney’s new Des Moines campaign office knows the names of many of the 29,949 Iowans who voted for him last time. The challenge now is to sort through the other 100,000 or so people who are likely to caucus, many of whom polls show remain up for grabs, and figure out which ones they can win over.

The first hurdle for any political targeter is deciding who to leave out of such an effort. Talking to the wrong people costs money—Romney spent $10 million to be runner-up in Iowa last time—and it risks motivating an opponent’s lukewarm supporters to take the race more seriously. But Romney is not just any candidate. He is already well-known among Republican primary voters and has one characteristic that might prevent many voters from ever being open to considering him. Can Romney’s team distinguish which Iowans have withheld their support because they’re not sure he’s the best candidate from those who refuse to vote for him because he’s a Mormon?

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Many of Romney’s advisers suspect that, in his last campaign, they underestimated the trouble the candidate’s faith would cause him in Iowa. Research showed that there were widespread doubts about Mormonism, but Romney’s team believed that if they introduced him as a good, moral family man who had thrived in mainstream American institutions—Harvard, the corporate suite, the Olympics, the political culture of a blue state far from Temple Square—many of the doubters would come around to accepting him, regardless of theological differences. (This idea was in a way inspired by traditional inter-group theory: that to know someone is to like, or at least accept, their group. Only half of Americans say they personally know a Mormon.) After losses in Iowa and South Carolina, the Romney team began to see voters’ attitudes not as a temporary block but the manifestation of a firm, unyielding bigotry. “There are some people for who it will not be settled,” Romney told me last spring. “A lot of people have differing views.”

That sounded at the time like the resignation of a man unable to peer within other men’s souls, but these days, Romney seems to talk about the challenge presented by his faith in less mystical terms. When asked last week by Fox News’ Bret Baier about anti-Mormon attitudes, Romney conceded they would “have some impact in a narrow group of individuals”—and the choice of words was telling. By fusing unconventional polling approaches increasingly popular among political scientists and predictive-modeling techniques used within campaigns, Romney should be able to pinpoint anti-Mormon voters—and remove them one by one from his list of Iowa targets. What’s more, he can do this without ever talking to these voters directly.

Voters seem perfectly comfortable telling pollsters they don’t support Mitt Romney. In fact, three-quarters of them do so in nearly every poll. They’re also more comfortable admitting a bias against Mormon candidates than toward a candidate from another other demographic minority. When asked directly this year by Gallup, 22 percent of voters said no to the question “If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be Mormon, would you vote for that person?” Even as the shares of voters unwilling to back a black, Jew, Catholic, or woman have shrunk over the years, the anti-Mormon figure has remained effectively unchanged since the question was first asked in 1967, when Romney’s father, George, announced a presidential campaign.