By Ben Adler
As any black or gay Republican can you tell you, the media loves a dog bites man story. That’s probably why the first national meeting of Democrats who belong to the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS, better known as Mormons) drew such a high ratio of reporters to actual participants. There might have been 125 audience members and half as many journalists crammed into a Holiday Inn conference room in downtown Charlotte for the event late Tuesday afternoon, at which the group’s highest-profile member, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, was the main draw.
So many Mormons and journalists in a room together was always going to be a bit of a culture clash. (“For our friends in the media, there is no open bar,” Jim DeBakis, the Utah state Democratic Chair, and a Mormon, joked.) But Reid and other speakers were eager to stand up and be counted. ”Don’t be afraid of what your neighbors think,” he exhorted the crowd.
Reid also recalled that a high-school classmate of his son’s had said, “I didn’t know you could be a Mormon and a Democrat.” And indeed, Mormons are overwhelmingly conservative and Republican-leaning. Six in ten call themselves conservative, according to a 2009 Pew survey by the Pew Forum, and Mormon Republicans outnumber Mormon Democrats by roughly three to one, an even wider disparity than among Evangelicals.
It wasn’t always that way. “Until 30 or 40 years ago, the LDS vote was pretty evenly split between Democrats and Republicans,” said Glenn Right, a non-Mormon DNC delegate from Utah. Right attributes the Mormon swing towards Republicans to the rise of social issues, such as the Equal Rights Amendment and a shift towards political conservatism in the Mormon religious leadership.
One frequent refrain, which is also heard from liberal Catholics and Evangelicals, was that Mormons are religiously commanded to care for the poor.
Right and Reid both harkened back to the 19th century to demonstrate Mormonism’s true progressivism. “The philosophy of Democrats and the early LDS religion were very much in tune,” said Right. “Early LDS settlers were socialist.”
Of course, this wasn’t just a history lesson. There’s a clear and immediate political purpose behind the Democratic Mormon effort. Utah, the state with the highest Mormon population, is a lost cause for President Obama, but Nevada is a tightly contested swing-state. And with a Mormon population of over 7%, the outreach could pay off.
Still, the movement may want to work on its pitch. Praising President Obama, Reid noted, “I’ve never heard him swear an oath, even in private. He’s not a foul-mouthed man.” That’s admirable, but it’s unlikely to swing many votes, even Mormon ones, this November.