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!’ ”