Mormon America: A Political Profile

“Of all the stories of American pioneers and settlers, none is more inspiring than the Mormon trail. The qualities of the founders of this community are the qualities that we seek in America, the qualities which we like to feel this country has, courage, patience, faith, self-reliance, perseverance, and, above all, an unflagging determination to see right prevail.” -- President Kennedy at the Mormon Tabernacle, September 1963.

The presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman have brought attention to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known as LDS and the Mormon faith. If Romney wins the Republican nomination, Mormons can expect significant scrutiny from both the world media and ordinary voters. What follows is a brief political history of the Mormon faith. How many American Mormons are there? Where do they live, and how do they vote?

Mormons were once “populist” Democrats, one of the distinctive minorities of the New Deal coalition who grew up poor during the Depression and eventually left the party after rapidly achieving economic success.

There are nearly six million Mormons in America, about 2% of the population, and their numbers are growing fast due to conversions and high birth rates. Romney has five children and Huntsman seven, and Utah has the highest birth rate in the nation.

The ten states with the highest percentages of Mormons are all west of Kansas City. Utah, founded by Brigham Young, is the seat of Mormon culture and influence -- over 70% of residents are adherents. Neighboring Idaho is nearly one-third Mormon. All of the mountain states except New Mexico and Colorado are at least 5% Mormon. Roughly 60% of American Mormons live in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and, surprisingly, Nevada.

The Mormon lifestyle -- drinking, smoking, and even caffeine are forbidden -- has led to healthy people and families: Mormons have lower than average divorce, suicide, cancer, obesity, smoking, alcoholism, out-of-wedlock birth, crime, and poverty rates. Their life expectancy is several years higher than the national average. Mormons are also better-educated, healthier, and more affluent than the national averages -- they are the most successful white religious group after Jews and Episcopalians. Utah is also the state that leads the nation in charitable giving. They do have the lowest enlistment rate in the armed forces due to the fact males are expected to go on Mormon missions (Romney went to France in the 1960s).

Mormon political history is complicated. Mormons settled in the West in the 19th century, leading Republican administrations in the post-Civil War era to keep Utah out of the union until 1896 due to fear of Mormon influence. Republican orators who denounced the (then-) Mormon practice of polygamy created a feeling among many Mormons that the Democrats were more tolerant. Utah and Idaho voted for Bryan in 1896; they usually voted for the national winner over the next generation. In 1928, the Mormon vote swung to Catholic Al Smith, as did most of the Democratic vote outside of the Bible Belt areas.

The Depression hit Utah hard, and Mormons were in the mainstream in supporting Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs -- they voted for FDR in almost exactly the same percentages as the nation. In 1948, Truman received a slightly higher percentage of the Mormon vote than his national average of 50%.

The 1952 election appears to be the turning point in Mormon politics. Like wealthy Southerners, Southwestern ranchers, and suburban Catholics, Mormons began to drift away from the Democratic Party in the 1950s, partly attracted by Dwight Eisenhower’s hero status and partly because the old Depression traditions meant less in the light of the post-1945 prosperity. Tired of Truman and the Korean War, the Mormon areas of Utah and Idaho gave Ike a 66-34% landslide; he did even better with Mormons in 1956. Mormons swung toward JFK in 1960 in roughly the same proportion as the nation. In 1964 after the Kennedy assassination, President Lyndon Johnson invited LDS President David McKay to the White House. LBJ became the only and last Democrat to carry the Mormon vote plus Utah and Idaho since 1950.

Not surprisingly, the turmoil of the 1960s turned off Mormon America in droves. Hubert Humphrey in 1968 collapsed to just 29%, with 63% of Mormons voting for Republican Richard Nixon. Since then, the Mormon vote has gone Republican by ratios ranging from 2-1 for Gerald Ford in 1976 to an all-time record 6-1 for George W. Bush in 2004. Utah was the most Republican state in the nation in 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1996, and 2004. Mormons almost invariably rank among the top three groups in supporting Republican presidential candidates, along with Cubans in Miami, and wealthy white Southerners.

At the local level, LDS elders have preferred to be bipartisan, and until the mid-1970s Utah often had one U.S. senator from each party. Orrin Hatch’s ouster of veteran Democratic Senator Frank Moss in 1976 symbolized the end of that pattern. Utah hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1970.

Barack Obama actually scored gains with Mormons; he boosted the Democratic vote by five points -- from 14% to 19%.

In the Nevada caucuses, entrance polls showed that Romney won 91% of his co-religionists. If he is the GOP nominee, expect him to break all records for Mormon support. Though if Romney doesn’t make the GOP ticket, don’t expect much of an opening for Obama. Due to their fiscal and social conservatism, Mormons are likely to remain part of the Republican base for many years.

What impact, if any, would Romney’s faith have on a potential Romney administration? Probably little: Romney’s pro-business leanings are in the Mormon mainstream, but are also standard Republican views. While Romney’s social views are traditional, he has never shown much interest in imposing them on anybody else. He has supported gay rights in Massachusetts. He has repeatedly said that he believes in the separation of church and state. As Massachusetts governor, he claims he was practical by signing some liberal legislation that the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature sent him, though he of course spearheaded Romneycare. He certainly appears to lead a virtuous private life, but Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith is likely to keep a low profile as president.