Washington • More than 40 percent of Americans would be uncomfortable with a Mormon as president, according to a new survey that also suggests that as more white evangelical voters have learned White House hopeful Mitt Romney is Mormon, the less they like him.
A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute released late Monday also shows that nearly half of white evangelical Protestant voters a key demographic in the Republican primary race don't believe that Mormonism is a Christian faith, and about two-thirds of adults say the LDS faith is somewhat or very different than their own.
The most striking part of the survey, however, shows that Romney's favorability among white evangelical Protestants dropped to 49 percent in the October survey from 63 percent in a July poll. The decline comes as more than half of the voters in that demographic reported that they were aware Romney is Mormon compared to 44 percent who were aware of that fact in a July survey. Other factors could have caused the change in favorability, survey authors caution.
"There's no causal effect that we can trace here," says Robert P. Jones, chief executive officer of the nonprofit institute and co-author of the survey. "But what we do see is white evangelical Protestants being the group that has gained knowledge of Romney's religion and simultaneously, Romney's popularity has fallen. ... It certainly spells, I think, concern if nothing else."
The poll didn't focus exclusively on views regarding a possible Mormon occupant of the White House. It found that two-thirds of voters (67 percent) expressed discomfort with the idea of an atheist president; 64 percent would be uncomfortable with a Muslim president and 28 percent had reservations about an evangelical president.
Similar polls have shown that a section of voters, usually about 25 percent to 30 percent, view Mormons with some hesitancy, though most of those surveys have asked voters whether they would support a Mormon presidential candidate.
The Washington-based institute instead asked if a voter would be comfortable with a Mormon in the White House. Half of Democrats, the poll shows, would be uncomfortable with that scenario as opposed to 36 percent of Republicans and 38 percent of independent voters.
Jones says that because someone reports being uncomfortable with a Mormon president may not necessarily translate into a vote against a Mormon candidate. He adds that if Romney's faith remains a side issue in the campaign, he might be fine.
"If the election is not about Romney's religion and is more about politics if it stays in that arena, then Romney may have less problems," Jones says. "But if his religion becomes front and center ... it could be a liability" among white evangelical Protestants.
As part of the 2011 American Values Survey, the institute found that two-thirds of adults say the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has beliefs different from their own faith.
Female voters were less likely to say Mormons are Christians (44 percent) than male voters (56 percent), a point Jones chalks up to women being more religious overall than men.
The survey could not ascertain whether former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's Mormon faith could present problems for his candidacy because his name identification with voters was too low. Both he and Romney have tried this year to avoid conversations about their faith as they seek the presidency.
Romney gave what his campaign heralded as a major speech during his failed 2008 campaign bid trying to tamp down concern about his religion, noting that he was running for commander-in-chief and not pastor-in-chief.
"I am an American running for president," Romney said. "I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith, nor should he be rejected because of his faith."
Huntsman, who has said he derives his beliefs from all faiths but that he is proud of his Mormon roots, was even more critical of questions about the LDS Church.
"Discussion of Mormonism doesn't create additional jobs," Huntsman told reporters outside of a New Hampshire town hall earlier this year. "[It] doesn't expand our economic base; it doesn't secure our position in the world. I have no idea why people are wasting so much political-capital bandwidth on this issue. It's nonsense."