For some voters not yet wedded to a candidate in next year’s Republican presidential primaries, Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith may be enough to stop them from tying the knot.
But not at Yale, the candidate’s campus supporters say.
Although the former Massachusetts governor has spent time in recent months addressing concerns — especially among evangelical Christians — that his Mormonism is akin to a cult following, at Yale Romney’s challenges have more to do with wooing a student body that is overwhelmingly liberal. As he seeks to increase his name recognition on campus, Romney must work to broaden voters’ perception of him to include more than just his religion, which has been the focus of most media coverage of the candidate, Romney’s supporters and detractors alike said.
Many students interviewed said they are unfamiliar with Romney’s platform, and the most of them said they know only that the multimillionaire former venture capitalist is Mormon.
The national campaign is well aware of the political impact of Romnney’s religion, campaign spokesman Alex Burgos said. Instead of focusing on the nuances of the Mormon faith, he said, the Romney campaign is emphasizing his “American” values — with a focus on family, patriotism and his conservative positions on social issues — to counteract preconceived notions about Mormonism.
But Thayne Stoddard ’11, a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, said he thinks Romney’s religion will not play a big role in Yale students’ decision about whether to vote for him in primaries that begin in January.
“I believe that Yale students are open-minded enough to accept the fact that he is Mormon and to not make this a large matter in their decision of who to vote for as the Republican candidate for president,” Stoddard said in an e-mail.
To the extent that Romney’s religion will affect the outcome of next year’s elections, it will do so only because of many voters’ skewed notions of Mormonism, said Casper Desfeux ’10, the campus organizer of an Oct. 3 visit and rally featuring Romney’s youngest son Craig.
“Although it is hard for competing candidates to denigrate a minority group openly, they know that many Americans possess inherent spite towards the Church of the Latter-Day Saints and will probably take advantage of that,” he said in an email. “Hopefully, people will realize that even if there were some aspect to Mormonism that would make Romney less qualified, it would not affect the presidency or America’s future.”
David Brewster, Connecticut state chairman of the College Republicans, said Romney’s religion poses a significant problem only because of his relatively unknown name. As Romney continues campaigning and builds a reputation based on his record that voters can become acquainted with, people tend to dismiss Mormonism as a non-issue, Brewster said.
Mary Freeman ’11, a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints and a Romney supporter, said the candidate’s religious values correspond to those held by Americans in general. If he held the same beliefs but did not label himself a Mormon, there would be no controversy surrounding his faith, she said.
Romney’s reluctance to discuss his faith detracts from his appeal as a candidate, Stoddard said.
“He seems to feel that he needs to identify more with the other Christian groups in our nation than he needs to explain his own beliefs,” he said in an e-mail. “I believe that the Republican voters wish to see that softer more personal side of the candidate through his public statement of faith.”
Many Yale students said they believe efforts to promote Romney on campus, such as the rally with Craig Romney earlier this month, likely will be ineffective in winning the former governor votes.
Peter Johnston ’09, who interned at Romney’s campaign headquarters this summer, said Yale represents a starkly different political dynamic than that of the rest of the nation.
“There are very few people interested in supporting a Republican on campus,” Johnston said. “When you come down to the people who are interested in supporting Republicans, you have a strong libertarian contingent among students, which seems to be coming out in favor of Ron Paul.”
Geoffrey Shaw ’10 said he thinks Romney’s image as a family man is forced, making the ex-governor come off like a “game-show host persona.” He said he worries Romney is courting the far right too heavily.
But Desfeux said Romney’s personality and record as governor will boost his standing with Yale voters.
“Romney is an incredibly charismatic candidate: he fosters confidence everywhere,” Desfeux said in an e-mail. “Considering his chances as a runner, he doesn’t have any skeletons in the closest.”
An Oct. 16 USA Today/Gallup poll available indicates that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani remains in the lead for the Republican nomination nationwide. Romney trails behind Giuliani, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and Arizona Sen. John McCain with 10 percent of the vote.