Latter Day Taint?

Evidence suggests that Mitt Romney's religion is less important to voters than it is to reporters.

As Mitt Romney continues his sputtering but probably inevitable progress towards the Republican nomination, his Mormonism continues to provide a source of endless fascination for commentators, if not for the majority of actual voters. It is widely seen as the most interesting thing about him -- more interesting even than his vast wealth, modest tax bill or centrist record as governor of Massachusetts.

The latter, indeed, may count against him in the remaining primaries more than his religious affiliation which, considering the torrent of media speculation, has been mentioned very little during the campaign by the major candidates. Evangelical votes may have cost him South Carolina. Mormon votes undoubtedly boosted him in Nevada. But Romney's opponents on the religious right are (publicly at least) far more troubled by his perceived liberalism than by his membership of a minority faith.

Indeed, while the Evangelical wing of the Republican party always makes for great copy, its home-grown candidates have flopped badly in the primaries. Michele Bachmann and, perhaps more surprisingly, Rick Perry proved to have limited voter-appeal. In their search for a Stop Romney candidate, Christian conservatives have turned to two Catholics, one of whom (Newt Gingrich) has less than compelling religious credentials. The other, Rick Santorum, has now widely been written off, although he is said to be doing well in Minnesota. Most Evangelicals prefer him to Romney, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't prefer Romney to Obama.

A generation or two ago, the thought of Evangelical Protestants lining up behind a Catholic candidate would have seemed as unimaginable as their support for a Mormon might today. There is some evidence of resistance among some such voters to the idea of a Mormon president. A survey last year showed that 47 per cent of white evangelical Protestants would be somewhat or very comfortable with a Mormon in the White House -- more than the 42 per cent of the general population who expressed a similar sentiment, but not dramatically more. And Mormons were viewed favourably by two thirds of the public, including by two thirds of Protestant evangelicals.

Mormons themselves, meanwhile, have mixed feelings about the relentless focus on their religion.

Romney's major problem with such voters is his image as a Massachusetts liberal. In the run up to the South Carolina primary, a leading Southern Baptist, Richard Land, even criticised him for being "not Mormon enough", contrasting his previously liberal stances on issues such as abortion or gay marriage with the conservative line generally taken by the Latter Day Saints. He seems to have taken the hint, launching a charm offensive aimed especially at Catholics. Last night, for example, he lambasted new federal regulations requiring that employee healthcare plans offered by hospitals, universities and other institutions include provision for contraceptives and morning-after pills.

Responding to Catholic fears that the rules would apply to them, Romney described the proposals as "a violation of conscience". "We must have a president who is willing to protect America's first right: our right to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience," he said. Similarly, earlier this week he urged supporters to sign a petition condemning "the Obama administration's attacks on religious liberty."

As ever with Romney, there's a subtlety in his choice of words: the reference to "the dictates of our own conscience" might have been aimed at those suspicious of his own belief-system. And his appeal to the First Amendment points to his continuing desire to preserve the separation of his own religious and political spheres. The overriding sense, though, is of someone determined to say whatever it takes to win the nomination. The question remains whether he can do so while saying little enough to stand a chance in November's general election.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.