Is Mitt’s Mormonism Responsible for South Carolina Loss?

Mormons across the country are interpreting Saturday’s Romney defeat in South Carolina primary results as evidence of anti-Mormonism at work; that’s the gut-level feeling.

For data, I’d recommend a look at research by the Pew Forum, which is conducting state-by-state analysis of primary results in what appears to be an effort to get a statistical grip on the religious vote.

Pew Forum data from last weekend’s contest in South Carolina shows that evangelical Christians did play a major role in the Gingrich victory. Of the two-thirds of Republican voters who self-described as “born-again” or “evangelical,” 44% voted for Gingrich, 22% for Romney, and 21% for Santorum.

This is a reversal of fortunes from New Hampshire, where, Pew data shows, Romney actually won among evangelicals: 31% of self-identified evangelical Christians voted for Romney, 23% for Rick Santorum, and 21% for Ron Paul.

It is also worthy of note that in South Carolina Mitt Romney actually improved his share of self-identified Protestant voters. In 2008, Romney won about 13% of South Carolina Protestants; in 2012, that number grew to 27%.

Certainly, data shows that anti-Mormon sentiment played a role in Romney’s fortunes, but here are five other takeaways from South Carolina data: 

1. Anti-Mormon sentiment may be fading among mainline Protestant denominations.
2. Evangelical Christians are not a monolithic population. Clearly, evangelicals in New Hampshire felt differently about Romney than evangelicals in South Carolina. There may be strong regional variations in how evangelicalism is lived and manifested in politics.
3. Anti-Mormonism is a factor, but it is difficult to isolate. Without qualitative research among evangelicals who oppose Romney, it is impossible to tell why his Mormonism matters and whether it is a surrogate for other potentially objectionable aspects of his candidacy: his past as a social moderate, his difficulty connecting authentically with voters, his regional identity, his corporate past and class status, and so forth.
4. How religion intersects with economic class in voter behavior is an understudied but potentially important factor in 2012 and beyond. Social theorists often talk about “intersectionality” of race, class, gender, and religion. It would be very revealing, I think, to see data that focuses on the intersection of religion, class, age, and gender. It might even shed some light on the Newt Gingrich “tough guy” dynamic Sarah Posner wrote about here. I’ve often noted that Romney doesn’t code traditional “tough-guy” masculine, which I believe is attributable to Mormon culture.
5. Religiosity subsumes ethics. Despite last-minute revelations of marital infidelity that could have impacted religiously-identified voters, Gingrich soared. That too is a curious South Carolina outcome that begs for clarification.

I’ll be talking about “God and Politics” Tuesday at the Center for American Progress in Washington DC. More information is here