In the Nevada caucus, Mitt Romney has a crucial advantage: his Mormon faith.
Just 7.5 percent of Silver State residents are Mormon, but when it comes to Saturday’s caucuses, Mormons will likely constitute a significant chunk of voters. In 2008, about a quarter of Republican caucus voters were Mormon.
“Not only will they vote for Romney,” says Nevada GOP strategist Robert Uithoven of the state’s Mormons, “but they always turn out. No matter what election, no matter who’s on the ballot, they are as reliable voters as you can find in Nevada.”
“Typically political strategists in this state try to zero in on where the LDS vote is going to go, because they are such reliable voters,” Uithoven adds, comparing it with how the senior vote is tracked closely in many states because seniors are such reliable voters.
For Romney, Mormons are a demographic group he can almost entirely capture. Last cycle, according to exit polls, 94 percent of Mormon GOP voters backed Romney. Silver State politicos anticipate that Romney will likely perform about as well this year with Mormon voters.
“Most of them are going to see this as an opportunity to get an LDS [member] as the nominee, if not the president,” says David Damore, a political-science professor at University of Nevada–Las Vegas. “And that’s going to outweigh anything else.”
For Gingrich, Paul, and Santorum, Nevada thus proves a uniquely difficult state to win. It’s theoretically possible to lose the Mormon vote and win the state, but it would require finding a significant bloc of support among the three quarters of voters that aren’t Mormon. On Monday, Gingrich was blunt about the difficulties of winning the state, saying, “Nevada’s tricky because of the Mormon influence, but we have a shot at it.”
There is one campaign, however, that is actively fighting to wrest away some of the Mormon vote from Romney: Ron Paul’s. Last cycle, Paul placed second in Nevada (albeit a distant second, trailing Romney by 37 points), and this year, he’s trying to improve on his previous showing. The campaign has both national and Nevada-based coalitions of Mormon supporters, and is working to make the case to Mormons that Paul’s candidacy, not Romney’s, is closer to their beliefs.
“Ron Paul can really, in some sense more than Mitt Romney, appeal to the Mormon vote in that he’s a strict constitutionalist, and supporting the Constitution is very much part of the Mormon faith,” argues Connor Boyack, a Utah Mormon and a prominent member of Paul’s national LDS coalition. “Though Mitt Romney is a member of our faith, his record and his advocacy and what he would do as president conflicts with a lot of things that many Mormons consider important and believe as a fundamental part of their faith.” One example, according to Boyack, is the conflict between Romney’s hawkish foreign-policy views and a Mormon scripture quotation that urges one to “renounce war and proclaim peace.”
But he concedes that Paul’s platform also alienates some Mormons, who don’t like, say, his stance on drug policy.
Overall, Nevada insiders are dubious that Paul will be able to win even double-digit support among Mormons, much less take any significant portion of the vote. “I certainly think Ron Paul will get some Mormons to vote for him, but not in any kind of consequential numbers,” says Uithoven.
And Romney’s Mormon support isn’t all that is buoying him in the state. Nevada Republican strategist Pete Ernaut calls him the “prohibitive favorite,” pointing to Romney’s significant ground presence. “Romney far and away has the bigger organization and more thorough ground game, because he’s been working here for the better part of four years,” Ernaut says. “And I don’t think there’s any comparison between his operation and the others.”
Even Boyack concedes that it can be tough to persuade Mormons to look at a candidate besides Romney.
“I do know that many people base their support for Mitt Romney almost entirely on the fact that he’s a Mormon,” he says, “and they feel it would be great to have a member of our faith in the White House, just as black people did with Obama.”