Mitt Romney’s Mormon Problem in the Iowa Caucuses Simply Won’t Die

Some Iowa evangelicals openly admit they can’t support Romney because of his religion. Kirsten Powers on Mitt’s inescapable issue before the all-important Jan. 3 caucuses.

12.16.11 5:23 PM ET

The Mormon issue has reared its unattractive head in Iowa.

Newt Gingrich’s Iowa political director, Craig Bergman, told a McClatchy Newspapers focus group last Wednesday, before he was hired by the campaign, that “a lot of the evangelicals believe God would give us four more years of Obama just for the opportunity to expose the cult of Mormon. There’s a thousand pastors ready to do that.” For this, Newt pink-slipped him Tuesday.

Only in politics do you get fired for telling the truth.

Note that Bergman did not say he believed this about Mormonism; he was merely stating a fact. Many evangelicals have serious issues with Romney’s Mormon faith, and you can expect them to voice them if Romney becomes the Republican nominee.

Judd Saul, a Tea Party activist and Iowa voter at the focus group, was even more blunt: evangelicals, he said, “won’t vote for a Mormon.”

Polk County GOP co-chairman Dave Funk told the group that Romney would not have any coattails if he were the nominee because he wouldn’t “turn out 3 million evangelicals to vote in every school board and local election.”

Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which studies the role of religion in public life, told me: “There are apparently some people out there who just refuse to vote for a Mormon. It’s visceral. I’m surprised by it. For whatever reason, they somehow cannot ‘bracket’ to the side their theological convictions to vote for someone who actually shares their moral and social concerns.”

Polls support this contention. Alan Cooperman, a research director at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, pointed out to me that in the latest Pew Research poll, there are “really high negatives for Romney among white evangelicals.”

The Dec. 13 poll found that among white evangelical Protestants who say they are very likely to vote in a GOP primary, 18 percent say there is no chance they would vote for Newt Gingrich. For Romney, the figure is 35 percent.

A CBS poll released Dec. 6 found that among Republican Iowa caucus-goers, Gingrich garners 34 percent of the white evangelical vote to Romney’s 10 percent. Ron Paul, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann all grab a larger portion of the coveted evangelical vote than Romney.

David Lane of Iowa’s Pastors and Pews, which mobilizes the evangelical vote, told me bluntly, “Eighty percent of evangelicals will not vote for Romney in a contested primary, and 20 to 30 percent will stay home or go third party in the general election because of the Mormon issue and because they see him as an advocate of abortion and gay marriage.”

Lane’s prediction lines up with the Pew polling, which found Romney struggling for evangelical support in the primary, but in a general-election choice of reelecting Barack Obama or supporting a Mormon, they overwhelmingly fall in line behind Romney. Cromartie says, “Romney’s Mormonism is really important in the primaries but less so if he gets the nomination among evangelicals.”

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Bob Vander Plaats of Iowa’s Family Leader, an influential social conservative group, says of Romney’s Mormonism: “People never bring that up to me. So you wonder, it’s a little like sex. People clam up. Sometimes when it comes to Mormonism or different aspects of faith, people aren’t going to talk about it. But at the end of the day is it going to play a role? For some it’s a hurdle they can’t clear.”

Vander Plaats and other social conservative and evangelical leaders in Iowa maintain that the primary issue with Romney is his flip-flopping and lack of a core belief system. But considering that Newt is an Olympic level flip-flopper—but still garnering significant evangelical support—this doesn't quite add up.

Romney told the Des Moines Register last week that religion or spirituality should not play a role in the election process.

Perhaps it shouldn’t, but all too obviously it will.