A striking feature of the 2012 race for the White House – a contest that pitted the first Mormon nominee from a major party against an incumbent president whose faith had been a source of controversy four years earlier – is how little the subject of religion came up in the media. According to a new study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, just 1% of the campaign coverage by major news outlets (including broadcast and cable television, radio, newspaper front pages and the most popular news websites) focused on the religion of the candidates or the role of religion in the presidential election. Only 6% of the election-related stories in major news outlets contained any reference to religion.

Media attention to religion’s importance in the campaign peaked during the primaries, when several Republican candidates spoke about their Christian beliefs. The prominence of religious rhetoric in speeches by Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and others fueled speculation about whether white evangelical Protestants – who made up about one-third of all Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters in 2012 – would withhold support from Mitt Romney because of his Mormon faith. Indeed, the biggest single religion-related campaign story came more than a full year before the election, when a Texas minister publicly called Mormonism a “cult.” That incident, in October 2011, generated fully 5% of all coverage of religion in the presidential campaign.

When Romney captured the GOP nomination and named Rep. Paul Ryan, a Roman Catholic, as his vice presidential running mate in August 2012, they became the first non-Protestant ticket in the Republican Party’s history. But as the primaries gave way to the general election campaign, the subject of religion subsided in the media, in part because neither Romney nor President Barack Obama made much effort to raise it. Fewer than one-in-seven religion-related stories in the campaign (13%) resulted from statements or actions by either candidate.

Rather than focusing on the religious beliefs and practices of the candidates, media coverage of religion during the 2012 campaign frequently centered on the political clout of white evangelicals and their electoral choices – a topic that accounted for 29% of religion-related coverage overall. Talking about evangelicals became a way for the media to address the question of what impact Romney’s Mormon faith could have on the race, confronting religion as a tactical “horse-race” concern.

Romney was the subject of about twice as much religion-related coverage as Obama, and 45% of all religion-related stories in the campaign took the horse-race approach, dealing with how religion might impact the vote. In all, 34% of the religion coverage focused on faith as a character issue, or mentioned it in passing as part of a candidate’s identity. There was far less coverage (16%) of how religion might impact policymaking or governance.

These are among the key findings of the new study conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) and the Pew Forum, both of which are part of the Pew Research Center. The study examined nearly 800 religion-related stories from cable television, network broadcast television, radio, newspaper front pages and the most popular news websites in the country between August 2011 and Election Day (Nov. 6, 2012). In addition, the study involved a sample of specialized religious publications and an analysis of hundreds of thousands of messages about the candidates’ faith on Twitter and Facebook; the social media analysis relied on technology developed by Crimson Hexagon. (For more details on how the study was conducted, see the Methodology.)

By the end of the campaign, about two-thirds of U.S. adults (65%) were aware that Romney is a Mormon. But the vast majority of Americans (82%) said they had learned “not very much” or “nothing at all” about the Mormon religion, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted shortly after the election.

Other findings of the PEJ media analysis include:

  • The overall level of religion coverage was about the same as in 2008. Just as in the 2008 presidential campaign, religion accounted for a tiny portion of the total coverage devoted to the 2012 election by major news outlets. Of all the election stories studied, 1% were specifically about religion, the same portion as in 2008. Just 6% referred to religion in any way. That level of attention was fairly even across all platforms studied – with the exception of newspapers, whose front-page stories mentioned religion 16% of the time.
  • More religion coverage focused on Romney than on Obama. Romney received twice as much religion coverage as Obama. Thirty-five percent of the religion-related stories focused on Romney, often raising questions about how his faith would be received by voters. Obama’s coverage, at 17%, often focused on incidents in which his Christian faith was challenged, including rumors that he is a Muslim.
  • The two nominees rarely sought to bring religion into the campaign narrative. Just 8% of the religion stories during the 2012 race were prompted by statements or actions from the Romney campaign. For the Obama campaign, the comparable figure was even lower (5%). The GOP primary candidates were much more vocal about religion, prompting 22% of religion references in the media during the campaign. Nearly half of all religion stories (47%) resulted from analysis, opinion or enterprise reporting by members of the news media, highlighting the degree to which neither of the candidates wanted to raise religion as an issue.
  • Religion coverage was heavily focused on the horse-race angle. Nearly half of all the religion-related stories studied (45%) dealt with how religion might impact the race. Many of these horse-race stories revolved around which candidate was winning among particular religious groups, such as white evangelical Protestants in Iowa. Other horse-race stories examined how the candidates used religion as part of their campaign strategy.
  • The second biggest element of religion coverage dealt with the candidates’ beliefs and values. In all, 34% of the religion coverage during the presidential race focused on faith as a character issue or mentioned it in passing as part of a candidate’s biography. There was far less coverage -16% – of how religion might impact policymaking or governance.
  • In social media, the tone of conversation about the candidates and religion tended to be negative. For Romney, negative assertions about his faith on Twitter and Facebook outnumbered positive ones by more than 3-to-1. And allegations that Obama is a Muslim appeared twice as often as messages seeking to refute those allegations.
  • Within the Mormon community, media became a voice of caution to a group suddenly in the spotlight. An analysis of several publications aimed at members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) finds that during the campaign, LDS media often sought to prepare Mormons for increased scrutiny while maintaining distance from politics. For example, Church News, an official news outlet of the church, issued a statement that acknowledged Romney’s candidacy but firmly reiterated the church’s political neutrality.

In the end, the basic contours of religion in U.S. politics remained unchanged in the 2012 election, according to a Pew Forum analysis of exit poll results. In particular, white evangelical Protestants voted as overwhelmingly for Romney (79%) as they did for Republican candidates John McCain in 2008 (73%) and George W. Bush in 2004 (79%). Indeed, white evangelicals voted as strongly for Romney as Mormons did (78%), according to the Pew Forum analysis of exit poll data.