Poll Shows: South Carolina will be Romney's JFK in West Virginia

From my own and others’ experience, I’ve come to believe that a presidential candidate’s religion is usually thought to be a bigger deal with voters than it really is.

Hubert Humphrey comes to mind. He was the Minnesota U.S. senator who almost became president in 1968. During a previous run for the White House in 1960, Humphrey was locked in a head-to-head showdown with John F. Kennedy in West Virginia. That state’s Democratic primary was considered the make-or-break indicator of whether America would accept Kennedy’s Catholicism.

Humphrey was running out of money and momentum, but he managed to buy time on a West Virginia TV station. He fielded questions — unscreened questions — from viewers on the telephone.

It all went wrong. The phone connections wouldn’t broadcast properly. When they did, confusion reigned.

The big blow came when a live caller got through to confront the jovial, colorful Humphrey. “You get out of West Virginia, Hubert Humphrey!”

That mishap symbolized Humphrey’s doomed candidacy. Kennedy won West Virginia and thereby squelched the idea that America feared a Kennedy White House would be subordinate to the Vatican.

A new InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion survey of 486 registered Republican voters in South Carolina hints that the Palmetto State may be a West Virginia-caliber hurdle for Mitt Romney‘s candidacy. We asked:

“Are you aware that Mitt Romney is of the Mormon faith?”

Yes: 88 percent

No: 12 percent

Next, we asked:

“Would Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith make you more or less likely to vote for him in the South Carolina primary?”

More likely: 13 percent

Less Likely: 45 percent

Don’t know/undecided: 42 percent

The survey was conducted October 17. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percent, and has been weighted for age and gender.

At face value, these numbers appear to make Romney’s effort in the first Deep South primary to be about more than just winning or losing X number of delegates. It could also signal whether the country as a whole is ready for a Mormon president.

Romney has been portrayed by many in the GOP as the logical candidate for so-called “religious right” voters; those who might be disappointed that Republican frontrunner Rudy Giuliani is pro-choice, and who also are aware that John McCain traditionally has problems in South Carolina.

In fact, the son of the late Bob Jones of Bob Jones University endorsed Romney. That institution is a center for conservative education in South Carolina, and is known for it elsewhere.

But Jones equivocated in his endorsement of Romney. In essence, he said he’s behind Romney because Romney has the best chance of winning the general election for president. But Jones also explicitly rejected the tenets of the Mormon faith.

Our poll shows that this two-sided endorsement may or may not help Romney. We asked a third question:

“Are you aware that Bob Jones III has endorsed Mitt Romney for president?”

Yes: 58 percent

No: 42 percent

Then this:

“Would the endorsement from Bob Jones III make you more or less likely to vote for Romney in the South Carolina presidential primary?”

Yes: 27 percent

No: 32 percent

Don’t know/No Opinion: 41 percent

If you consider that at least one recent poll shows that Romney leads in South Carolina with 26 percent of the Republican vote, then he may already have captured the top spot or be in a position to do so.

Other polls show the former Massachusetts governor trailing Giuliani or Fred Thompson in South Carolina.

Should a candidate’s religion matter in the 21st century? Certainly not. Does it matter? Probably not.

Kennedy proved almost a half-century ago that biases against certain religions can be overcome. But unlike Kennedy, whose Roman Catholic faith was considered a prominent issue early in the campaign, Romney has yet to face down the question of his “exotic” religion and its founding document, The Book of Mormon.

When the presidential primary season accelerates into high gear and the gloves come off, the attacks on Romney and his religion will come — maybe through sneak attacks, like a thief in the night, but they will come.

Romney has going for him his remarkable gift for articulation, including his quick wit. If any of the current GOP candidates are equipped to deal with the awkwardness to come, it’s probably Romney.

Jack Kennedy did so by clearly saying he would be his own man as president, neither beholden to the pope nor the dispensations of any one religion or person.

Romney, in today’s far wackier world, might get by with simply saying he has not nor will he ever watch HBO’s program about Mormons and polygamy, “Big Love.” It just might work.