Ross is voting for Obama because, as he puts it, Republican obstructionism in Washington has barely given him a chance to be president yet. But Ross said he’s nonetheless “thrilled to death” that Romney is the GOP nominee. “Now that he’s running for president, it’s changed significantly. Because now people want to know. They say, ‘Hey, this Mitt Romney isn’t a bad guy. What does he stand for? What are his beliefs?’ It’s been an added benefit to missionary work, if you will, for this candidate to be a Mormon and to be on the presidential ballot.”
It’s that connection, one deeper than politics, that animates Mormons’ enthusiasm for Romney. And it’s translating into a heightened awareness of the presidential election in a community known for its political involvement, says Todd Moody, a 47-year-old LDS member from Las Vegas. “There are those who are extremely energized by Mitt Romney’s campaign and more politically involved than they have ever been,” says Moody, a lawyer. “Not just because he’s a fellow member of the church but because his ideals align with theirs.”
That’s not the case with every Mormon, he cautioned; some are far more preoccupied with getting by in a state economy among the nation’s worst. But Moody, whose 14-year-old daughter is helping to register voters, says that this election is different. “There is clearly added excitement because of Mitt Romney’s candidacy.”
CHURCH VERSUS CAMPAIGN
The Mormon community is more excited, yes. But for the church itself, the Romney campaign is a different matter altogether.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is strictly nonpartisan, and any deviation from that would jeopardize its status as a tax-exempt organization. Church members point to another doctrine that keeps the institution from backing Romney: The church encourages its members to be politically active and offers them a chance to register to vote, but members interviewed by National Journal say that any attempt to direct them how to vote—in a religion that preaches self-reliance—would be met with hostility.
“If you were to come to church with me on Sunday, you would see outside our chapel a stack of voter-registration cards,” Moody says. “And you may hear from the pulpit something about the bishop encouraging members to become registered to vote. You would never hear him say, ‘By the way, Thursday night, over at the Smith’s home, there’s going to be a rally for Romney.’ Absolutely not—that would clearly cross the line. Not only would it be contrary to church direction, it’s so well understood at the church that he would have 12 people approaching him immediately after saying, ‘What the heck are you doing?’ ”
Ron Futrell, a Las Vegas Republican and member of the LDS church, says that church leaders even discourage jokes about which way to vote. And Ross, the Democrat, says he has never felt pressure to vote Republican. “The church is very, very clear in regards to politics,” he says. “The church does not get involved in politics.… One of our main beliefs is, we believe in the right to make your own choices and stand up for those choices.”
Still, the church’s moral teachings—especially on social issues—are often thought to bear on politics. And the LDS church has been very active in some political causes, if not on behalf of candidates. Chief among them recently was lending financial support to California’s Proposition 8, which decreed that marriage existed between only a man and a woman. As Nevada journalist Jon Ralston reported, the church sparked speculation that it was tilting toward Romney when an official distributed a memo urging members of the church to speak “with one voice.”
Church officials maintain, and reiterate to National Journal, that the effort is strictly about voter registration. But it has extra energy this year. “It’s a little more aggressive, I’ll be honest,” Futrell says of this year’s registration drive. “I don’t care if I get in trouble for saying it.”
In a community that leans hard to the right—66 percent of Mormons identified as “conservative” in a Pew Research Center poll released in January—registration and turnout may be enough for Romney to win Nevada’s six electoral votes. Sig Rogich, a veteran Republican strategist based in Vegas, estimates that Mormons usually constitute 10 percent of the vote in general elections. That number could surge to 13 percent or 14 percent with Romney on the ticket. “The church will say, ‘You need to vote 100 percent in this election,’ because [Romney] will get 96 percent of it,” he observes. “They don’t have to say anything explicit. It’s just like JFK with the Catholic Church. They simply pushed for people to vote.”