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The Mormon Option

I'm all for outside the box thinking, and Amy Sullivan's quite right to say we might get some more if Democrats would fire the consultants who keep losing elections. Her assertion that Democrats can pick up Mormon votes, however, strikes me as unlikely. In some sense Mormons really are "highly concentrated in increasingly critical swing states, like Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado" but of course the highest concentration comes in Utah, which is not coincidentally the least swingy state out there. Amy trades heavily on the fact that Mormons and conservative Evangelics make odd bedfellows because Evangelicals think Mormonism is a weird cult. But by the same token, non-observant people think Mormonism is a weird cult. And Catholics think it's a weird cult. I'd wager African-American evangelicals think it's a weird cult, too. It's a bit of a weird cult.

On the social issues, true, Mormons tend to have liberal instincts on stem cells and church-state issues. But they have conservative ones on the more salient topics of abortion, gay rights, and general cultural drift issues. More to the point, Mormons aren't the sort of people who'd be backing Democrats on economic terms if you could get past religion. They're viciously opposed to taxes, big government, and the whole deal. Empirically, the contention that Harry Reid, a Mormon, can do a lot to change this dynamic seems dubious. Reid doesn't enjoy particularly warm relations with the Mormon hierarchy despite his best efforts to reach out. And other Democrats, who won't be personally Mormon or pro-life, are going to have an even harder time of it.

January 10, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Lots of assertions (and some nice prose) about Mormons but are they true? I don't know. I do know, though, that "fire the consultants, target Mormons" is not the sort of out-of-box thinking we need. We don't need to pander to more narrow demographical groups, we need the opposite, a more coherent and unified message.

Posted by: AF | Jan 10, 2005 12:16:56 PM

Amy trades heavily on the fact that Mormons and conservative Evangelics make odd bedfellows because Evangelicals think Mormonism is a weird cult. But by the same token, non-observant people think Mormonism is a weird cult. And Catholics think it's a weird cult. I'd wager African-American evangelicals think it's a weird cult, too. It's a bit of a weird cult.

More to the point, the fact that Mormons are held in disdain by the other fundamentalist/conservative groups is clearly not an obstacle to their working together. After all, people who think Protestants are all heretics are playing nice with people who think the Roman Catholic church is the Whore of Babylon. Each group is entirely willing to overlook the bigotry directed at it by the other groups because they share (misogynist, homophobic) 'values' and a (reactionary, authoritarian) worldview.

I'm just surprised Islamic fundamentalists haven't been invited to join the party...

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Jan 10, 2005 12:32:45 PM

Didn't Clinton come in third in UT in 92?
(vague memory)

Posted by: MattB | Jan 10, 2005 12:34:02 PM

Tom, IIRC they were being invited, back before 9/11. Grover Norquist was in touch with some groups who are persona non grata now.

Post 9/11, Islamic fundamentalists are more useful as The Enemy.

Posted by: Barry | Jan 10, 2005 12:35:02 PM

Are you kidding me? The Dems are the perfect party for Mormons.

Dems are for gay sex in the bedrooms which will inevitably lead to man on dog sex as well as polygamy and incest and the Supreme Court can do nothing about it!

Don't ya get it? All we have to do is convince the pointy head bosses in Salt Lake City and Colorado City that if they support Gay Marriage they can have their Polygamy and Incest and we'll be in Phat City!

And let me tell you, there are plenty of closeted gay mormons....

All that's needed is a bit of outreach to our gay incestuous polygamous Mormon friends.

Like Orrin Hatch.

Posted by: uh anon | Jan 10, 2005 12:38:28 PM

After a while you just run out of good minority groups to campaign towards. There just aren't any good "minorities" left out there for Democrats to capture.

Posted by: Chad | Jan 10, 2005 12:38:29 PM

The Mormon vote, the Buddhist vote, whatever. All this demographic handwringing is not going to change the fundamental fact of the landscape right now, which is that at some deep reptile-brain level, a large portion of the populace identifies "Republicans" with "no-nonsense take-charge tough guys" and "Democrats" with "dithering effete pussies." It's clearly impervious to empirical input. And I don't think strategy, framing, sincere blogging, etc., can change it. Sometimes the forces that have been set into motion just have to spend themselves. If there is anything left of the planet after that, maybe events will cause a paradigmatic shift in people's views on this. But I don't think we can engineer it. Fatalistic enough for you?

Posted by: cassandra | Jan 10, 2005 12:38:51 PM

Mormons have their own, strangely socialist, government.

Posted by: Ken Melvin | Jan 10, 2005 12:39:01 PM

Any discussion of partisan politics and the Mormon vote has to include one major player: Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

Romney, who is definitely running for President in 2008, is the Republican, Mormon governor of Massachusetts. He may have bombed at the Republican Convention and will face problems in the GOP primaries with his "when in Massachusetts, don't oppose choice" position, but he does have money, a name, and probably the LDS behind him.

For more on Mitt, Utah's first governor of Massachusetts, see the "Avenging Angel's List of Evil Doers."

Posted by: Jon | Jan 10, 2005 12:58:37 PM

There certainly are recruitable Democratic voters amongst the Mormon population. They almost all live in Salt Lake City. Those that don't live in the Boise area. The rural ones (ie, the Nevada/Colorado/Arizona ones) aren't really swingy. Next.

Posted by: djw | Jan 10, 2005 12:58:54 PM

Tom Hilton: I'm just surprised that Islamic fundamentalists haven't been invited to join the party...

Read Peter Kreeft's Ecumenical Jihad for a call (by a Catholic reactionary) for just such an invitation to be extended.

Granted, 9/11 has made such an alliance more problematic, but still..."the enemy of my enemy is my friend", and liberal modernity is the common enemy of fundamentalisms of all stripes.

Posted by: Wally Ballou | Jan 10, 2005 1:02:19 PM

i am mormon (raised in utah) and a lonely independent dissenter among my brethren.

i think there's very little chance that democrats can ever pick up large numbers of mormon voters--the salt lake tribune estimated that in the last election mormon voters went republican by a margin higher than 90%. mormon culture places an enormous emphasis on conformity and all types of dissent are frowned on--which my explain why harry-the-democrat-reid isn't more popular with mormons.

i disagree with matt's observation that mormons trend liberal on church-state issues, quite the contrary. without fail, the thing mormons like most about the current president is that "he prays." if anything, i think they'd like to see christian values more firmly entrenched in the halls of power.

regardless of how others view them, mormons DO see themselves as a part of the larger christian family. it is obvious to almost all mormons that they share a great deal of the christian right's political and social agenda. i think most mormons have no idea how outsiders view them (mormon culture prides itself on its piety and wholesomeness--that's how they see themselves and how they expect others to see them).

to my knowlege, the only place where mormons' political leanings diverge from those of fundamental christians is on stem-cell research, and that really has to do with finer theological points about when life begins.

in general, western conservatives are beginning to trend pro-environment and are cautiously embracing regulations that would have been absurd to republicans of a generation ago. but mormons (and utah) are still behind other western states in moving in this directon.

Posted by: luckyman | Jan 10, 2005 1:11:19 PM

We don't need to pander to more narrow demographical groups, we need the opposite, a more coherent and unified message.

Agreed. But what bothers me is that even with a good message, Democrats tend to screw up. I think a lot of it comes down to laziness and magical thinking. You still get the sense from Democrats that they feel Republicans shouldn't really be winning or don't really win elections legitimately because only stupid poor people (or evil rich people) could vote that way.

The Democratic message on domestic policy is still in synch with the majority of Americans. Unfortunately, it's poorly tuned to times of manufactured crisis, a point that Democrats missed in the 2002 and 2004 election cycle. A better message might have been to hammer on the theme that the crisis is manufactured--this might have lost the elections, but would have established Democrats as a credible, principled opposition party. Instead, "mainstream" Democrats accepted the "War on Terror" in Bush's terms and then tried to change the subject to peacetime policy. How was that supposed to work?

I think the problem is less one of message than of discipline. There are too many idea people trying to do too many things. They talk too much, and when they act, it's usually at the worst time. Republicans are just playing the game better. Democrats need to stop accepting losses as a sign of moral superiority and stop believing that the prize for most gracious concession speech is an award worth putting any effort into winning. We need to attack more; our opponents deserve to be attacked. We need to keep attacking long after we've lost our appetite for it. In other words, don't be the stupid kid in the slasher movie who thinks he's done after he's knocked the monster unconscious with a shovel (case in point: Newt Gingrich is still alive).

As for Mormons, I'd certainly write them off as a source of Democrats based on what I know. I also think it's a rare target for thoroughly debunking a major religion. Most religions have the benefit of time to cloud the dubious origins of their sacred documents. It's not the role of any political party to do this kind of debunking, but a better way to handle Mormons is just to educate the young before they are beyond help.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Jan 10, 2005 1:16:26 PM

i disagree with matt's observation that mormons trend liberal on church-state issues, quite the contrary. without fail, the thing mormons like most about the current president is that "he prays." if anything, i think they'd like to see christian values more firmly entrenched in the halls of power.

They tend to (though not always) trend liberal in formal seperation between Church and State, because they've been on the recieving end of formal attempts at government suppression from the same religious groups that remain dominant in the US.

OTOH, they share a lot of policy values with the far right, and have no problem with those values being entrenched in law.

Posted by: cmdicely | Jan 10, 2005 1:19:51 PM

Ooops.

Posted by: cmdicely | Jan 10, 2005 1:20:18 PM

I hate to admit it, but I think Cassandra is basically right - the stereotyping in the media has given the Repubs an image of "toughness" (whtever the heck that means) which trumps any kind of reasoned analysis.

The Dems only hope for 08 is someone from outside the northeast (Kerry's biggest problem) who can out-tough those GOP chickenhawks.

Wes Clark in '08!

Posted by: wvmcl | Jan 10, 2005 1:49:30 PM

If we need more evidence that we aren't going to pick up Mormon votes, the 2nd largest concentration of Mormons is in Idaho, probably America's most conservative state.

Posted by: Erik Loomis | Jan 10, 2005 1:58:34 PM

The Democrats' only hope for '08 is to start thinking about '06. If that looks as bad as the 2002 election, it will be time to declare the Democratic party formally dead, never mind 2008. I'm already starting to think that the brand is so tainted at this point that a name change is in order.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Jan 10, 2005 2:00:19 PM

"Romney, who is definitely running for President in 2008,"

Um, does anyone doubt that Jeb will be Diebold's next President? If you doubt it, please let me know why. I'd love to have hope.

Posted by: MattB | Jan 10, 2005 2:02:44 PM

mormons DO see themselves as a part of the larger christian family

Yeah, right - Christians who are not drinking? Getoutahere. Clearly they are disguised Muslims. The fifth column.

Posted by: abb1 | Jan 10, 2005 2:05:50 PM

"The Dems only hope for 08 is someone from outside the northeast (Kerry's biggest problem) who can out-tough those GOP chickenhawks.
Wes Clark in '08!"

Well, this is kinda what I'm talking about, as an example of strategy that won't work. Folks are going to look at someone like that and say, "he wants me to vote for him because he's an ersatz Republican; why should I take that over the real thing?" Again, that's the fear-motivated, self-preserving reptile brain talking.
As you know, your idea got tried this last time, and Clark came off, disastrously, as a half-baked sorta-hawk. I doubt he'll make it back from that.

Posted by: cassandra | Jan 10, 2005 2:05:55 PM

Isn't it obvious by now that Sullivan's only goal when she talks about who Democrat campaigns should appeal to is to get more God in the Dem party?

Posted by: WeSaferThemHealthier | Jan 10, 2005 2:17:53 PM

I was a Mormon for the first couple of decades of my life. Most Mormons combine a steadfast social conservatism with a Western U.S. hyper-individualism, tempered with a bloated sense of patriotism that's a relic of when they were trying to convince the U.S. government that they no longer wanted a theocracy and that Utah should be granted statehood. So most Mormons are a nightmare for Democrats on a range of issues, from abortion to taxes to militarism. I was a student at Mormon-run BYU when Clinton was elected in '92 and saw a number of students wearing black armbands the day after the election; old folklore stories about the end of the world being hastened by the wickedness of mankind started popping up in the Mormon Cultural Area, including my extended family's Thanksgiving dinner that year.

On the other hand, there are plenty of Mormons who are in some way nontraditional -- they live outside Utah and Idaho, the wife works unapologetically outside the home, they have a gay kid and have decided their church's response is inadequate. These are the people the Dems could reach with whatever message would capture a national majority; liberal Mormons are usually pretty close to the national median voter.

The Mormon vote isn't monolithic, but the best way to split it is to do what the Dems are doing anyway: focus on a national majority. Just don't ask me how to do that.

Posted by: Dave | Jan 10, 2005 2:21:17 PM

Since I have to register for the TNR link, I have a question about what Sullivan means by "can pick up Mormon votes". That suggestion may be true in the sense that we can hardly do worse than we are doing already. Votes from any source are votes. It should all go into the same cost/benefit formula; if there are Mormons that can be swayed on some issues with a reasonable amount of effort, then their votes are fair game. If she means we can ever pick up a lot of them, then I share the MY's (and everyone else's) pessimism.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Jan 10, 2005 2:46:26 PM

Whoa. Yglesias grew a little beard.

Posted by: Joe Drymala | Jan 10, 2005 2:52:09 PM

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