On July 3, 2006, the Los Angeles Times ran a story called “A Mormon for President, Voters Balk.” The story was based on an LA Times/Bloomberg poll in which, according to the Times’ account, “thirty-seven percent of those questioned said they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate.” Naturally, the focus of the story was on the implications for Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy. The Times suggested that the results meant trouble for Romney. Tom Bevan wrote about the poll here, and I linked to Tom’s piece here. Both of us agreed that, indeed, the results were bad news for Romney.
However, the Times’ story did not state the precise question that its poll posed. Nor is it clear that the Times had released its underlying report on the survey (which contained the actual question) as of the time it ran the story. Although the story says that results were released the same day (July 3), I’m told that the report wasn’t released until July 7. It is considered unprofessional to run a story about a poll without having released the underlying report on which the story is based.
In any case, the underlying report shows the Times’ July 3 story to be misleading, in my view. The question posed by the pollsters was, “Just thinking about a candidate’s religion, do you think you could vote for a Mormon [or Jewish, or Catholic, or Evangelical, or Muslim] candidate.” Thus, contrary to what the Times reported, the poll does not show that 37 percent of those questioned would not vote for a Mormon candidate; it shows that 37 percent of those questioned would not vote for a Mormon candidate if they thought only about that candidate’s religion. Indeed, the report (but not the story) acknowledges that “there is nothing to indicate that numbers such as these, while certainly indicative of a basic level of resistance, are a real barrier to legitimate candidacy.” In addition, the report (but not the story) states that there is no evidence “to infer that a candidate’s religion would trump other important voter criteria such as trust, charisma, shared values. . .or the candidate’s stand on [issues].”
The story also neglects to mention that, while half of the Democrats who expressed an opinion said they would not vote for a Mormon if all they thought about was religion, independents and Republicans showed less prejudice. About 60 percent of independents who expressed an opinion, and more than 70 percent of opining Republicans, were prepared to vote for a Mormon even if they thought only about his religion. Thus, Romney’s religion would appear to be less of an obstacle to his nomination than one might infer from the Times’ story, which quotes a political science professor who states that religious-based resistance to Romney “among Southern Baptists” could be a “huge problem.”
Romney may or may not have a “huge problem” due to his religion. In either case, The LA Times seems to have had a problem reporting on its own poll.