by Robert Ruby, Senior Editor, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

TableIn Mitt Romney’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, one key issue is his Mormon faith. Surveys by the Pew Research Center and other national polling organizations show strong public misgivings about the religion as well as about any presidential candidate who also belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon church. In February, Pew found 30% of the public to be less likely to support a presidential candidate who is Mormon. More than twice as many (64%) said it wouldn’t matter; only 2% said they would be more likely to support a candidate who is Mormon.

Gallup found negative views about the Mormon religion to be even higher. Asked in February for their opinion of the faith, 46% of the public had an unfavorable opinion. The figure is substantially higher than what the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life finds with respect to other denominations. In a 2005 survey, American Muslims were viewed unfavorably by 25% of the public, evangelical Christians by 19%, Catholics by 14% and Jews by 7%. (Atheists are consistently the group that the largest number of people view unfavorably, 50% in 2005).

TableAny national candidate who is Mormon may also have to battle wide-spread misconceptions about the faith. Asked by Gallup in February what came to mind when thinking about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest number of those surveyed (18%) named polygamy, a practice the church officially discontinued in 1890. “Salt Lake City” came second (10%), followed by “good people” (7%), “dislike their beliefs” (6%), “door-to-door evangelizing” (6%) and “weird beliefs” (6%).

For now, Romney remains one of 10 declared Republican contenders and Pew surveys show his support in the single digits. In April, among registered Republicans and Republican-leaners, only 8% named Romney as their first choice for the Republican nomination, up from 7% in March. Earlier surveys show even lower levels of support among the general public.

TableA steadily growing number of people have a favorable opinion of Romney (19% in a December 2006 Gallup poll and 24% in May 2007), although Gallup polls show the number of people with an unfavorable opinion has grown as well, (12% in Dec. 2006; 22% in May). However, Romney has yet to gain the attention of many Americans. In a May survey only 1% of the public, and 2% of Republicans named Romney as the candidate they had heard most about in recent news.