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How Romney's Mormon Problem Became His Greatest Asset

One year ago, Romney’s faith was a problem, not an asset. The conventional wisdom held that Romney’s strength was his background as a successful businessperson and competent, technocratic, turnaround guru, while Mormonism threatened his support among the Evangelical Christians central to his chances of securing the presidency. Now, with two months to go until the election, that narrative has been turned on its head: The Romney campaign has decided, with good reason, that Mormonism is no longer the candidate's problem, it's his solution.

The heart of Romney’s problem entering the convention isn’t his faith, it’s that people don’t like him very much (ie: ordinary Americans don't think he understands their problems.)  Much of this, of course, has to do with the Obama campaign's attacks on Romney, which, in aggregate, have managed to neutralize his preferred image as a trustworthy businessperson. As a result, Romney trails Obama by substantial margins on every question of compassion or likability. For instance, Obama’s ahead by 16 points on the question of which candidate cares more about “people like me” in a recent Gallup survey.

Those numbers are also a testimony to the Romney campaign's inability to portray their candidate in a positive light. Boston never seemed inclined to bolster Romney's image as a likable businessperson when it came under concerted attack from Obama. More generally, it has created hardly any moments over the past year where Romney has been presented to the public in a relatable manner. There's been nothing along the lines of Bush having a ranch, Kerry being a war hero, Clinton playing the saxophone; no candidate can have too many of such moments, but I'm not sure that Romney has had a single one.

And while the Romney campaign still steadfastly refuses to launch a concerted positive advertising campaign to boost their candidate's image, they surely know that their last chance to portray him as "likable enough," as the president once memorably noted in a different context, will probably be at the convention. That's why the decision to highlight in Tampa the candidate's role as a Bishop in the Mormon Church is so interesting. Eric Fehrnstrom, the strategist best known for boosting etch-a-sketch sales, explains the reasoning:  emphasizing Romney’s religious life shows that he “does have an appreciation for the issues that are faced by ordinary Americans.” Implicitly, of course, this is an acknowledgement that the portrayal of Romney as a successful "turnaround artist" simply isn't enough to make Americans like him. To the extent that Boston was betting that Americans simply want an effective manager to take over the economy, they have now essentially admitted that it wasn't working.

Whether emphasizing his faith and leadership in the Mormon Church will be enough to improve Romney’s favorability problems depends as much on execution as the concept, and it's not exactly clear how the RNC will incorporate Romney's faith. But if the Romney campaign can execute this properly, Romney might have his first "good guy" moment, since a church leadership role probably involved helping ‘ordinary’ Americans overcome personal hardship. For instance, recent reports have noted that Romney helped the sick and poor. And it's also important to remember that polls consistently find that most Americans want a president with strong religious beliefs, so Romney's religious involvement is probably an asset independently from whether it makes him appear compassionate.

Are there risks in emphasizing Romney’s religion? I suppose, but they’re not nearly as serious as Romney’s favorability issues. A Pew Research survey found that a majority of Americans already know that Romney is Mormon and are comfortable with it. Although a minority of voters aren’t comfortable with Romney’s religion, there’s not much evidence that it has reduced Romney’s support: among Republicans and Republican leaners who are uncomfortable with Romney’s religion, Romney still leads Obama 93-4—which is actually slightly better than his 92-5 lead among Republicans and Republican leaners who are comfortable with Romney’s religion. Whatever reservations evangelical voters have about Romney have clearly been outweighed by their opposition to Obama. Realistically, voters are going to find out about Romney’s religion anyway, so they may as well own it and portray it well to ameliorate the reservations of any voters with discomfort. The other risk is drawing attention to the more controversial elements of Romney's time as Bishop, when he apparently took strong stances on gays and women's issues. But so far, the Obama campaign has been content to leave these arguments on the sidelines, perhaps because they already can discuss these issues in policy terms. There's certainly a risk here, but Romney's in a position where he probably needs to take chances to turn around his image.

Romney said it himself: Obama's attacks are having an impact. The RNC is Romney's best opportunity to undo the damage, but his old brand--the corporate, technocratic, turnaround guru--probably won't conjure up the warm feelings that Romney needs to overcome months of negative advertising. Instead, the Romney campaign will rely on what was once considered their biggest weakness: Romney's involvement in the Mormon church. While the necessity of this approach speaks to the damage done to Romney's old strengths, the decision to focus on Romney's faith is a strategic move that represents Boston's best chance to produce a "Romney cares about people" moment at the convention. And that's exactly what he needs.