PROVO, Utah — Did unreported factors contribute to the demise of Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential campaign?
How did the news media cover the 1967-68 presidential campaign of his father, George Romney?
Two research projects presented to an audience of more than 100 people at BYU's Mormon Media Studies Symposium recently compared the two Romneys' campaigns.
BYU professors John Gee and Louis C. Midgley titled their paper, "Under the Media's Nose: Overlooked Factors Undermining the Presidential Campaign of Mitt Romney.
The paper, presented by Gee, provided history and background on a culture of spiritual warfare waged by evangelicals against other denominations that view themselves as Christian but are deemed cults by evangelicals.
"They are against what they see as cults … and define themselves as counter-cults," Gee said. "They have been attacking Latter-day Saints for years."
As an example, Gee told of an instance some years ago when Mormons and evangelicals attempted to band together against pornography in Philadelphia, but the evangelicals couldn't stand to be in the same room with the Mormons. "They found pornography to be more tolerable than the Latter-day Saints," Gee said.
When Romney was pushing for the Republican nomination, Gee cited examples of counter-cult activity by the John McCain and Mike Huckabee campaigns. These politicians would slip false information about Mormons into a casual message. Because the false information was borderline sensational, it would be reported by the news media.
Following reaction by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the politician would issue an apology, but by then it was too late.
"The damage was already done and no one is going to remember the apology. Huckabee knew exactly what he was doing," Gee said. "They used this to get Romney out of the way because he seemed to be a fair, formidable opponent."
By understanding how this issue played a role in Romney's campaign, Gee hopes counter-cult propaganda will be recognized in the future, especially by members of the media.
"They need to know some of these things that have been going on that haven't been covered, the way the coded language and off-hand remarks can be inserted in," Gee said.
Lane Williams, a communications professor at BYU-Idaho, said his research supported the findings of Gee and Midgely.
"One of the observations I've had about coverage of Mormons over the years is what has been left out. It's almost more interesting than what is included," Williams said. "Reporters were willing to say evangelicals think Mormons are a cult — it was sort of a legitimate way to say evangelicals didn't want to vote for Mormons."
Williams's paper was titled, "The Evangelist: Missionaries, Model Minorities and Contrasts with Mitt in the Coverage of George Romney's 1967-68 Presidential Campaign," and focused more on how the press covered the Romney campaign, the second major LDS presidential candidate since Joseph Smith in 1844.
Williams displayed photos and newspaper clippings that documented how George Romney's campaign was portrayed in the media. Williams said Romney's support dropped as the news media covered him in ways it didn't cover Richard Nixon.
"Nixon stayed in the background — sensing the new dynamic of reporting that ultimately imperiled the Romney campaign," Williams said before quoting from Theodore White's book, "The Making of the President."
"The man who had been so thoroughly savaged by the reporters and cartoonists over the years wanted their full talents for destruction concentrated on the personality of George Romney. It was, someone said later, looking back on George Romney's earnest and miserable exercise of 1967 and 1968, like seeing a missionary abandoned to the cannibals," the book reads.
While it is true that the news media focused more on Mormonism during Mitt's 2008 campaign, Williams found more than 125 articles in the AP, New York Times, Washington Post, Time and Newsweek between 1966 and 1968 that contained the words "Romney" and "Mormon."
Contrasting the campaigns of father and son, 40 years apart, Williams made the following observations:
Mormonism was more densely detailed in the coverage of Mitt Romney
George Romney was introduced to the nation as both a potential presidential candidate and a Mormon
George Romney openly shared his faith in ways that Mitt did not. A sacrament talk became national news; he avoided practicing politics on Sunday and it was reported he fasted and prayed before deciding to run for president
George Romney was never portrayed as a flip-flopper the way Mitt was
George Romney was seen to have delivered a presentation compared to John F. Kennedy's speech in Houston in 1960 – as Mitt did
Mormonism was mentioned in many contexts (Mitt's 1967 accident in France where he nearly died; Scott Romney's temple wedding; George Romney released his tax return showing he paid tithing; and Diggers in San Francisco asked Romney his thoughts on marijuana – and he told them he didn't smoke.)
Polygamy was a prominent topic in both campaigns. It was a more legitimate news story for George, who was born in Mexico in the polygamist colonies there
Several items prominent in the Mitt coverage weren't mentioned 40 years earlier. For example, no reporter back then asked whether Mormons were Christian or not. About 25 percent of the stories in the Mitt coverage compared Mormonism somehow with the word "cult." None did during his father's campaign
Both Romneys were framed as missionaries.
At the conclusion of the presentations, Gee was asked if a 2012 Mitt Romney campaign could overcome future counter-cult attacks on Mormonism.
"Mitt Romney will not be able to overcome half a century of hate and bigotry, but I would love to be proven wrong," he said. "The media has to get the story correct, and it's too much to ask for."