Will Obama use Romney’s mormonism against him?

Romney’s faith leaves him open to political attacks. EPA/Kamil Krzsczynski

Five months before the American presidential election, one thing is clear: Obama wants this to be a referendum on venture capitalism.

Last week the Obama camp sharpened its attack on the business record of Republican nominee Mitt Romney. In what has become known as the “vampire ad” (below), Romney was portrayed as a heartless financial predator. As head of Bain Capital, the ad alleges, Romney made a fortune from buying out struggling companies, stripping their assets and laying off thousands of workers.

The President followed this with several speeches attacking Romney’s main claim that his business experience made him the right man to lead the country out of recession. The job of the President, Obama declared, was not just to maximise profits for the benefit of the financial elite.

Will the strategy work? Tarring Romney with the corruption and greed of investment banks makes sense given the record levels of voter hostility to Wall Street. One study shows that animosity towards Wall Street is at its highest level since 1973. A Harris poll in April found 70% of Americans believe Wall Street financiers are willing to break the law for the sake of personal enrichment.

On the other hand, targeting venture capitalists leaves the President vulnerable to the charge that he is hostile to the free enterprise system. Even some Democrats appear uncomfortable with the anti-business tone of recent attacks. Popular party figures like Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, have defended venture capital firms as crucial to economic growth. And when one Democrat member of Congress accused Bain of “raping” American companies, the party establishment was quick to repudiate the comments.

For the moment at least, Obama seems to be losing rather than gaining traction with voters. Recent polls show his lead over Romney has narrowed to less than four points. And in crucial battleground states like Florida, Romney is now pulling ahead of the President.

If this continues, where will the Democrats turn to discredit Romney? An obvious answer is his Mormonism.

Like it or not, there is plenty of evidence of a “stained-glass ceiling” in American politics. A study published this month in the journal Political Behavior argues that Romney’s Mormonism was a significant obstacle to his 2008 bid for the Republican nomination. A negative campaign highlighting Romney’s Mormonism, the authors suggest, would again be very effective.

Obama is currently attacking Romney on jobs, but that may change. EPA/Michael Reynolds

This result is in some ways puzzling. As the authors note, studies of the influence of religion on voting patterns show that religious commitment is more important than religious affiliation. In other words, voters respect candidates for the strength of their religious convictions, regardless of their precise content. There is little evidence, for example, of voter prejudice against Jews and Catholics, a stunning development given the historical pattern of anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism in the United States.

The problem for Romney is that, unlike Jews and Catholics, Mormons remain a religious “out-group” in American life. Geographically isolated and socially insular, Mormons have failed to build the “social bridges” to mainstream America which might overcome popular suspicion. This lack of social contact, the authors conclude, makes American voters receptive to negative messages about Mormonism.

The air of mystery around Mormonism is made worse by Romney’s silence on the issue. In 2008, he spoke openly about his faith. This time around, he has barely said a word. Rather than a Mormon, Romney wants the American public to see a self-made man with a solid marriage and five strapping sons.

In a positive sign for Romney, evangelicals appear to be rallying to him. During the primary campaign, conservative Catholic Rick Santorum was their preferred candidate. In South Carolina, evangelicals even preferred Newt Gingrich, a thrice-married, admitted adulterer. Now evangelicals are getting behind Romney. In a speech at Liberty University on May 12, he won over evangelicals with his conservative stance on hot topics like gay marriage.

Convincing the broader public, though, will be much harder. Polls consistently show that a quarter of Americans are reluctant to vote for a Mormon. Revelations about Mormon practices, such as baptising dead people into their faith, add to the perception that Mormonism is a cult rather than a religion.

For the moment, the administration is treading very carefully. David Axelrod, Obama’s chief campaign strategist, has in recent days affirmed that Romney’s Mormonism is not “fair game”.

But if the economy stays weak, and Romney manages to bat away the attacks on his business record, will the Obama campaign resist the temptation?

History shows that when the prize is the most powerful office in the world, everything is fair game. Be prepared for whispers about Mitt Romney and his Mormonism to become louder as we get closer to November.