Salt Lake City, Utah – No matter what setbacks have befallen Mitt Romney in the course of his bid for the White House – the damaging videos or accusations of flip-flopping on Medicare - the Republican remains on top in Utah, where President Barack Obama suffers some of his lowest approval ratings.
In the Beehive State, Romney’s reputation is teflon. In some ways, Romney has had an uphill slog in this race, as he has had to distance himself from some of his past actions and policies.
The healthcare plan Romney signed into law during his governorship of Massachusetts bares an uncomfortable similarity to President Barack Obama’s healthcare law, his enormous wealth attracts more judgement than awe, and his faith - Mormonism - is viewed with a mix of scepticism and suspicion by many.
But in Utah, the bastion of Mormonism, Romney's faith is not a political hindrance. Yet, neither the church nor the media it owns, such as the Deseret News, have endorsed Romney.
Mormons consider themselves an off-shoot of Christianity and believe that Jesus Christ visited the US after his resurrection. They believe in the Bible and also consider the Book of Mormon, apparently revealed to an American named Joseph Smith, as the word of God. Comprising about 1.7 per cent of US population, Mormonism is one of the fastest growing religions in the US.
Despite ruling the roost in Utah, the Mormon church, often referred to as the Church of Latter-day Saints (LDS), refrains from shouting their endorsement for Romney from rooftops.
“The church’s mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians,” said Michael Purdy, LDS church spokesperson, adding that the institution does “encourage its members to engage in the political process in an informed and civil manner.”
Kelly Patterson, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University, said there are pragmatic reasons for this.
For one, the church has members in both parties and identifies with values on both sides of the aisle. And then there’s the financial issue.
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“Legally speaking, the church is a non-profit institution and it would lose its tax-exempt status if it endorsed a political candidate,” said Patterson. That the church is walking a fine line on this is clear.
“It’s awkward in the sense that the church has made great efforts in every election year, to remind the church membership that it is entirely non-partisan, and it’s actually humorous for the church to make it this year,” said Vern Anderson, editorial page editor of the Salt Lake Tribune. “But it’s ludicrous and naive to believe that the church is not ecstatic that Romney is the GOP nominee and may well be president.”
Faith vs policy
Trying to parse out if Romney is popular in Utah due to his active status in the Mormon church or purely because of his Republican agenda is tricky.
Philip Barlow, director of the religious studies programme at Utah State University, said that Romney’s appeal is driven by both faith and policy.
“Being LDS isn’t sufficient cause for popularity, but there’s certainly the native son element to it," Barlow said, comparing Mormons' views on Romney to how Catholics felt a "certain measure of pride" from "John . Kennedy winning the presidency".
Going back to the early 1970s, around the time of the Roe vs Wade, the Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal in the US, the Mormon church began identifying strongly with the Republican party, Barlow said. Some Mormon candidates, such as John Huntsman who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination, were not backed by many LDS believers, he said.
With Romney’s campaign bringing even more attention to the faith, Mormonism’s image issue is especially heightened.
The target of broadside attacks by the press and even popular culture at times – the church did not appreciate depiction of Mormon life in HBO series Big Love – Mormons in Utah and the church itself are sensitive to press queries.
“Mormons, especially in Utah, are deeply aware and sensitive about how they are viewed by the rest of the country. And they know that they are seen as peculiar, at the very least,” said Anderson, the newspaper editor.
Utah resident Barbara Larsen, 56, said she cast a ballot for Romney in early voting because she liked his economic policy and the fact that he’s not a lawyer, although he does have a law degree.
Whether Romney would apply his faith to shaping federal law and the Supreme Court is another matter.
LDS church member Larsen said that while she would like the rest of the country to be more like Utah, she wouldn’t expect that to happen as Mormons such as herself “need to respect the majority”.
Romney’s faith worked in his favour when it came to getting Larsen’s vote, but she does not think the rest of country will see it the same way.
“I know a lot about the faith…I know a lot about Mitt’s values,” said Larsen. “But a lot of people don’t believe that Mormons are Christians.”
Trying to downplay the Mormon factor in Romney's campaign strikes some as almost farcical.
“They’ll tell you to vote for Mitt Romney, but they’ll stop short of telling you to vote for Mitt Romney,” said Collin Salee, 22, a Democrat with a tattoo to prove it – something he feels comfortable showing in the confines of the vegan Vertical Diner south of downtown.
He said that even though he was raised in the LDS church, he will not vote for Romney.
“The values that they preach are consistent with Romney's values,” said Salee, who was raised Mormon.
Rick Muster, a Romney supporter and LDS member, said that the candidate's faith will likely not help him in the election. He’s voting for Romney because of his energy and foreign policies and hasn’t considered voting for a Democrat since John F Kennedy. “Mormonism has been misrepresented by so many of the evangelical churches,” said Muster, 65, “It’s been called a cult.”
The sticky tax question
Romney, who has been criticised for his wealth, has said he will not release more of his tax records in order to honour the private nature of his donations to the LDS church - although Bloomberg recently reported that Romney might have been using his donations as a tax shelter.
Church spokesperson Purdy said donations received by the church are "confidential" and "a personal matter" for contributors.
“It’s a sham. Everybody knows it’s 10 per cent. Everybody knows that given his activity in the church, that he’s paid his 10 per cent.”
Barlow, however, said that what Romney is doing largely protects the church. “The church is already getting intense scrutiny from the world’s press and pundits, and a portion of that is unfair and distorted,” said Barlow, adding that much of this coverage is geared to make the church seem like “more of a business than a religion”.
“It’s about making it seem like the church is obscenely wealthy, but the church is only wealthy relative to its needs,” said Barlow, listing LDS outreach missions and charitable projects around the world as major expenses.
Pockets of dissent
Still, within Utah as well as in the broader Mormon community, there are those who do not want to see Romney win on November 6.
The SLT, the largest newspaper in the state, endorsed Obama in an editorial unflinchingly portraying Romney as a political changeling who went from someone the editorial board respected to a candidate they do not recognise.
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Even though the SLT is known as the liberal paper in Utah, the endorsement stirred the pot and the response was strong, said Anderson, drawing praise from outside Utah and vitriol from within.
“We knew that Mitt Romney had a really good chance of getting the nomination, and… We talked about his strengths and thought that, quite frankly, he’d probably gain our endorsement.”
But, he said, in watching the campaign closely, the board began to have its doubts.
“We felt uneasy at first, and then it grew to being absolutely appalled when he made his 47 per cent speech to the captains of industry and felt that it did two things. One, that it showed his close identification with the 1 per cent as well as his willingness to say whatever is necessary to whatever audience,” said Anderson.
Romney’s work on the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, as well as the fact that he’s Mormon, a Republican and very financially successful, said Anderson were considered, but ultimately, deemed not to be enough.
The SLT is the rare voice openly supporting Obama in the state, even in Salt Lake City, which is considered a bastion of liberalism in Utah.
One saleswoman, who did not want to be identified, said that people, especially those who do not belong to the LDS church, tend not to speak up about their politics and faith too much.
“It can be very controlling, the LDS church,” she said quietly because, “Honey, you never know who is going to be around the clothing rack!”
A non-Mormon, the saleswoman said she would want to leave Utah in the event of a Romney win, “because of all the smugness”.
Jaleesa Darris, 22, is a rare sight, with not one, but two pro-Obama buttons pinned to her handbag. “I’ll vote for Obama because he doesn’t hate for women, he stays out of our ovaries,” said Darris, referring to where Obama stands on the issue of access to abortion. “He’s done more for this country in four years than Romney will.”
Follow D Parvaz on Twitter: @Dparvaz