Menus Subscribe Search
Mitt Romney

Does Mormon Matter?

• July 19, 2012 • 9:27 AM

What can measuring ideology and its effect on Congress tell you about a would-be President Mitt Romney?

It’s hard to miss that being Mormon is an issue in this presidential election. Gallup recently reported that nearly one in five Americans say that they would not vote for a Mormon—a sentiment most prevalent with Democrats and voters with low levels of education. The latter group, particularly whites and Latinos, are key to the GOP’s 2012 campaign. Add to that, many in Mitt Romney’s own party—particularly conservative Christians—see his religion as a liability.

Critical to these issues is the assumption that Mormon elected officials actually behave differently from those of other religious backgrounds. It turns out they do: when it comes to making policy, Mormons take a backseat to no one on conservative ideological purity.

We examined the voting records of every Mormon United States senator serving from 1976 through the early years of the 21st century. (The behavior of senators can give us a good approximation of the decisions that a future president might make because senators routinely deal with issues of national and international importance that governors and even members of the House of Representatives don’t.) There have been a total of 11 Mormon senators—eight Republicans and three Democrats—from seven states since 1976. On average, they are quite a bit more ideologically conservative than their non-Mormon colleagues.

Political science professors Jeffrey Lewis, Keith Pool and Howard Rosenthal developed a way to measure senatorial ideology by aggregating the liberal and conservative votes of each senator in each Congress dating back to the nation’s founding. The measure ranges from -1 for the most liberal voting record to 1 for the most conservative.

Conservative ideology score for senators from each religious group

For comparison purposes, then-Sen. Barack Obama’s ideology score in the 110th Congress was -0.44, making him the 18th most liberal member of the 100-member Senate. On the other side of the aisle, his opponent for the presidency in 2008, John McCain, had an ideological score of 0.41, making him the 32nd most conservative member of the Senate. (Vermont’s Bernie Sanders and Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn were the most liberal and conservative members, respectively, that year.)

Since 1976, Mormons average 0.21, firmly to the right of the moderate center point of zero. If you add the records of all other senators over this timespan together and average them, the number is -0.03, or just a tick to the left of center. If we restrict our analysis just to the Republican Party, we find that Mormons are a few notches to the right of their peers, registering an ideology score of 0.36, versus 0.31 for all other Republicans. Compare this with Republican evangelical Christian senators’ score of 0.42 and there is ample evidence of common ground between the two religious groupings. If religion were to influence a future Romney administration in the same manner as it has Mormon members of the Senate, then we should expect Romney to pursue a consistently conservative policy agenda, more or less in line with evangelicals.

Evangelical Christians, though, are less concerned about Romney’s overall ideology as they are about where he stands on the issues that are critically important to them. To understand this, we looked up every vote since 1976 on the “culture war” issues of abortion, contraception, gay and lesbian rights, women’s equality, and stem-cell research, and examined how Mormons compare with those of other faiths. We found that Mormons are much further to the right. On a scale of zero to 100, where 100 means a senator voted conservative 100 percent of the time on cultural issues, Mormons average a score of 86 percent, while all other senators average 48 percent. Evangelical Christian senators (of both parties) vote conservatively only 79 percent of the time on cultural issues. Even a high-profile Mormon Democrat such as Majority Leader Harry Reid has a mixed record on the hot-button issue of abortion, with a 50 percent rating from the conservative National Right to Life Committee, a score far to the right of most Democrats.

Among Republicans only, Mormons still outflank their colleagues, voting conservatively, on average, 94 percent of the time, compared with 73 percent for all other Republicans. Republican evangelical Christian senators voted conservatively 92 percent of the time on these issues, nearly identical but slightly less than their Mormon co-partisans.

The data imply that having a Mormon background produces a level of conservative ideological consistency in the Senate rivaled only by recent evangelical Christians within the Republican Party; concerns about Mitt Romney’s commitment to the conservative agenda due to his religion may be unfounded.

But this leaves open the question of whether religion indeed influences the conduct of presidents. Turns out, there is plenty of evidence to indicate that it does. Whether it’s John F. Kennedy carefully avoiding the appearance of entanglement with the Vatican, George W. Bush citing Jesus Christ as his favorite political philosopher, or Barack Obama absorbing the social justice and community-organizing ethos of his Southside Chicago congregation, the religious backgrounds of presidential candidates are a window into their values and policy preferences.

In Mitt Romney’s case, not only is he a privately devout Mormon, he has donated millions of dollars to his church and once served as a bishop in the Boston ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is reasonable to conclude, then, that his Mormon faith will inform the decisions he makes if he becomes president, even if he is reluctant to openly discuss it.

This means that members of the Christian Right have little to fear in supporting a Mormon for president, if they believe he is motivated by his faith. For the left, though, matters of faith may be an important reason to question Romney’s “moderate” reputation.

Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz and John McTague
Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz is an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island. Her academic work has been published in the Journal of Politics, the American Journal of Political Science, and State Politics and Policy Quarterly. Prior to entering academia, she worked in state and local government and electoral campaigns. John McTague is an assistant professor at Towson University. His academic work has been published in Legislative Studies Quarterly, State Politics and Policy Quarterly, and Political Geography.

More From Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz and John McTague

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly ten times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly ten times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.