LAS VEGAS—For most Republicans, this presidential election is less about putting Mitt Romney in the White House than kicking President Obama out of it. Their support for the GOP presidential nominee is often driven by contempt for Obama, a feeling so potent that Romney’s own moderate past as governor of blue-state Massachusetts hardly matters.
West Allen isn’t like most Republicans. For one, like Romney, he is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And instead of spitting bile about Obama, the Las Vegas lawyer sounds Romneyesque when he calls the president a good man who is just in over his head as the nation’s chief executive. As for Romney, well, just listen to how Allen describes him: “As a father of five children, this man is a hero. He’s a hero for me and my children because he’s actually the type of man I would want my children to emulate. We haven’t had a president like that in many generations.”
The 45-year-old says that the emphasis on Obama’s faults, instead of Romney’s strengths, can be frustrating. “I have had a chance to meet and talk with [Romney] and his family, and like I said, I know enough about his faith to know what motivates him,” Allen says, speaking from his sixth-floor law office a mile from the city’s famed Strip. “When I juxtapose that to the greatest Americans we have, the guy is right up there. It’s hard to find a presidential candidate in history of the United States who is such a Captain America-type man.” Allen, who calls Romney’s campaign “almost providential,” still isn’t done: “Mitt Romney is very much like Ronald Reagan was.” Most Republicans will vote for Romney, but they won’t compare him to the Gipper.
Allen’s backing for Romney, of course, isn’t tied only to their mutual faith; he, like every voter, has a matrix of reasons to explain his support (in his case, a focus on the federal debt). But it’s true that their religion, and the shared background and values it brings, are a major reason that Allen and other Mormons are eager to vote for Romney—the first person of their faith to top the presidential ticket of a major party.
The exuberant—albeit isolated—well of Mormon enthusiasm could have crucial implications for the White House race in swing-state Nevada, where LDS members make up about 7 percent of the population. That’s not much, but when more than eight of 10 Nevada Mormons are poised to back Romney (a summer survey from Gallup found 84 percent of Mormons favor the GOP nominee), they constitute an important voting bloc. It certainly mattered during the caucuses, when Mormons accounted for a quarter of the electorate. Romney won that race with 50 percent of the vote in a four-man field. If Mormon turnout surges in the general election—as some Republican operatives speculate—or if they’re able to energize the GOP ground game, Romney will benefit in a state where he narrowly trails Obama just weeks before Election Day.
But Romney’s Mormon edge has a catch: LDS members are committed to keeping their church—a tax-exempt, ostensibly nonpartisan organization—from taking sides in the presidential election. That hobbles those in the community who hope to maximize their effect on the ballot box in November. Here’s another problem: The Romney campaign has not yet reached out to the LDS community to enlist its help, according to many Mormons in Nevada. As a result, the two forces best positioned to organize Mormons in Nevada are sitting this fight out. Their absence leaves members of the church to mobilize on their own if they want their favorite son to sit in the White House next year.
MORE THAN POLITICS
Mormons are only the latest ethnic or racial group to be energized by one of their own running for president. In 1960, John F. Kennedy made history by becoming the country’s first Catholic president, drawing widespread support among members of the denomination along the way. The same was true for Obama in 2008, when he broke historical barriers to become the first black presidential nominee of a major party and then president.
As it was for those two candidates and their supporters, Romney’s candidacy resonates beyond politics. Mormonism has long suffered from widespread misconceptions in some corners of American society—most prominent among them that the church still tolerates the practice of polygamy. Others regard the religion as a fringe cult. These fallacies are so deeply rooted that many considered Romney’s faith a hindrance to his political career.
It used to be common, according to Steve Ross, a member of the church and a Democratic member of the Las Vegas City Council, to hear misinformation about his religion. “My kids told me this when they grew up: ‘Dad, we can’t eat chocolate?’ I told them, ‘Where the heck did you hear that from? I love chocolate!’ ”
Ross is voting for Obama because, as he puts it, Republican obstructionism in Washington has barely given him a chance to be president yet. But Ross said he’s nonetheless “thrilled to death” that Romney is the GOP nominee. “Now that he’s running for president, it’s changed significantly. Because now people want to know. They say, ‘Hey, this Mitt Romney isn’t a bad guy. What does he stand for? What are his beliefs?’ It’s been an added benefit to missionary work, if you will, for this candidate to be a Mormon and to be on the presidential ballot.”
It’s that connection, one deeper than politics, that animates Mormons’ enthusiasm for Romney. And it’s translating into a heightened awareness of the presidential election in a community known for its political involvement, says Todd Moody, a 47-year-old LDS member from Las Vegas. “There are those who are extremely energized by Mitt Romney’s campaign and more politically involved than they have ever been,” says Moody, a lawyer. “Not just because he’s a fellow member of the church but because his ideals align with theirs.”
That’s not the case with every Mormon, he cautioned; some are far more preoccupied with getting by in a state economy among the nation’s worst. But Moody, whose 14-year-old daughter is helping to register voters, says that this election is different. “There is clearly added excitement because of Mitt Romney’s candidacy.”
CHURCH VERSUS CAMPAIGN
The Mormon community is more excited, yes. But for the church itself, the Romney campaign is a different matter altogether.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is strictly nonpartisan, and any deviation from that would jeopardize its status as a tax-exempt organization. Church members point to another doctrine that keeps the institution from backing Romney: The church encourages its members to be politically active and offers them a chance to register to vote, but members interviewed by National Journal say that any attempt to direct them how to vote—in a religion that preaches self-reliance—would be met with hostility.
“If you were to come to church with me on Sunday, you would see outside our chapel a stack of voter-registration cards,” Moody says. “And you may hear from the pulpit something about the bishop encouraging members to become registered to vote. You would never hear him say, ‘By the way, Thursday night, over at the Smith’s home, there’s going to be a rally for Romney.’ Absolutely not—that would clearly cross the line. Not only would it be contrary to church direction, it’s so well understood at the church that he would have 12 people approaching him immediately after saying, ‘What the heck are you doing?’ ”
Ron Futrell, a Las Vegas Republican and member of the LDS church, says that church leaders even discourage jokes about which way to vote. And Ross, the Democrat, says he has never felt pressure to vote Republican. “The church is very, very clear in regards to politics,” he says. “The church does not get involved in politics.… One of our main beliefs is, we believe in the right to make your own choices and stand up for those choices.”
Still, the church’s moral teachings—especially on social issues—are often thought to bear on politics. And the LDS church has been very active in some political causes, if not on behalf of candidates. Chief among them recently was lending financial support to California’s Proposition 8, which decreed that marriage existed between only a man and a woman. As Nevada journalist Jon Ralston reported, the church sparked speculation that it was tilting toward Romney when an official distributed a memo urging members of the church to speak “with one voice.”
Church officials maintain, and reiterate to National Journal, that the effort is strictly about voter registration. But it has extra energy this year. “It’s a little more aggressive, I’ll be honest,” Futrell says of this year’s registration drive. “I don’t care if I get in trouble for saying it.”
In a community that leans hard to the right—66 percent of Mormons identified as “conservative” in a Pew Research Center poll released in January—registration and turnout may be enough for Romney to win Nevada’s six electoral votes. Sig Rogich, a veteran Republican strategist based in Vegas, estimates that Mormons usually constitute 10 percent of the vote in general elections. That number could surge to 13 percent or 14 percent with Romney on the ticket. “The church will say, ‘You need to vote 100 percent in this election,’ because [Romney] will get 96 percent of it,” he observes. “They don’t have to say anything explicit. It’s just like JFK with the Catholic Church. They simply pushed for people to vote.”