The Verdict is In: Romney Speech a Double Failure
The verdict on Mitt Romney's over-hyped speech on "Faith in America" is in, and the results are not pretty. It's now clear the address was a double failure. As a statement of political philosophy, Romney's new religious test proclaiming the exclusion of Muslims and atheists from the American community was rejected by most commentators (save his friends at the National Review and its online allies). But more importantly for Mitt Romney's fading prospects in Iowa, his primary audience of skeptical evangelicals and religious right voters isn't buying what he's selling.
No doubt, Romney's sudden decision to deliver the speech last Thursday was designed to counter the meteoric rise of Mike Huckabee in Iowa, the lynchpin of Mitt's campaign. But as the polling data comes in from the Hawkeye State, the picture only gets uglier. A Newsweek poll completed on the day of Romney's Texas speech showed him trailing Huckabee by 22 points (39% to 17%). A December 10 Rasmussen survey gave a Huckabee a 16 point edge (39% to 23%), a staggering jump from a narrow three point margin just two weeks earlier.
Nationally, the picture isn't much better for the former Massachusetts governor. While Romney is maintaining his strong lead in the less socially conservative (and neighboring) state of New Hampshire, his November front-runner position in South Carolina has evaporated. Nationwide, Mike Huckabee has rocketed past Romney into a virtual dead with Rudy Giuliani.
New research from Gallup suggests the anti-Mormon bias of American voters has changed little since Romney gave his speech. The percentage of GOP voters unwilling to vote for a Mormon dipped just three points (21% to 18%) from March 2007 to the days just after Romney's address. (The most surprising result may be the similarly prejudiced attitudes of Republican and Democratic voters, 18% of whom reported they would never vote for a qualified Mormon candidate.)
But a September 2007 survey from the Pew Research Center suggests Romney's challenge is much more daunting, even insurmountable among the evangelical voters fueling Huckabee's starling rise in Iowa. While 25% of Republican surveyed said they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon, that figure surged to 36% for white evangelicals. Among those evangelicals who attend church at least weekly, the opposition to candidates belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints leaps to a staggering 41%.
As I wrote previously, Mitt Romney's task last week was far different than that John F. Kennedy in 1960. JFK made the argument that his Catholic faith shouldn't matter to Americans in a general election and would not govern his actions as President. But Romney is running to lead the faith-based Republican Party. Having already declared his belief that religious faith is a requirement for the American President and that Muslims need not apply to be in a Romney Cabinet, Mitt Romney's unfortunate mission last week was to convince at least some of Iowa evangelicals that his own faith was "close enough" to theirs. And on that score, he clearly failed.
And just in case evangelical voters (who make up roughly a third of GOP caucus-goers in Iowa) might forget, Mike Huckabee offered them a helpful reminder. In an interview scheduled to appear in the New York Times this Sunday, Huckabee claimed that Mormonism is indeed a religion and not a cult, only to add, "'Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?"
Mitt Romney is no doubt right that "attacking someone's religion is really going too far." But evangelical voters have apparently already made up their minds about his. Worse still, Mike Huckabee has clearly passed the "tipping point," where his own budding campaign and Rudy Giuliani's exploding scandals made support for him as the alternative to the frontrunner viable for more and more evangelicals. (As Gallup reports, 28% of Republicans said they would not vote for a candidate who had been married three times.)
With his earlier statements, Romney helped bring this faith-based quandary upon himself. As it turns out, his speech last week did not echo John F. Kennedy, or rank (as his wife Ann insisted) with George Washington or the Gettysburg Address. History will show that as both political philosophy and desperate political gambit, Romney's big speech was merely a footnote.