As I kept observing during the primaries, anti-Mormon sentiment in America is considerable and widespread and not at all limited just to conservative evangelicals, but it is particularly strong among the latter. People who do not want a Mormon President are very comfortable saying so (there was no issue here of respondents who gave false answers to pollsters), and the only groups whose candidates meet greater resistance with the electorate as a whole are Muslims and atheists. No one would say that it is surprising if a Muslim candidate could not win a presidential nomination or national election, because I think everyone understands that the electorate is not going to support such a candidate precisely because of his religion. Call this identity politics, call it sectarianism if you must, but it is all but unavoidable in a mass democracy in a country where the majority belongs, broadly speaking, to the same religion.
Candidates of minority religions are not going to fare well in national elections here until a considerable majority is non-observant or simply not religious at all. This observation tends to annoy politically active ecumenists who seem to think that religion could not possibly matter so much that it would affect voting or political alliances. It seems to me that this rule about minority religion candidates is true in pretty much any Western-style democracy with a large observant religious population. Indian secularism seems to offer the exception to the rule, as the elevation of Manmohan Singh to the post of PM there shows. Parliamentary systems can be more immune to this rule to the extent that one of the leading parties, as in India, is self-consciously not aligned with any particular religion, and presidential voting involves more of a personal identification with the candidate that makes this issue more significant.
In any case, the opposition was similar, albeit less intense, with a Mormon candidate. The difference is that surprisingly few in the media and the pundit class seemed willing to believe that respondents actually meant it when they said this. That was the fundamental political obstacle that Romney could not have overcome and will not overcome in the future if he tries again. In the event that he somehow prevailed in the primaries, he could never have won a general election with so much built-in opposition to his candidacy. Looking back on the embarrassing campaign and the final result, Republicans might regret McCain’s nomination, but given the intense hostility to Huckabee from the leadership and the movement elite (including many of the very people who later conveniently became devoted Palinites) Romney was the only viable alternative. The presidential vote would have been an even greater defeat for the GOP with Romney at the helm, and a significant part of this would have been on account of his religion.
This does not touch on the flaws that Romney himself had as a candidate, which would have made winning difficult even without the problem of anti-Mormonism, and which complicates the story by using a deeply-flawed candidate and his campaign as the evidence for the limits of political cooperation among different kinds of religious conservatives. It complicates the story because there was good reason to doubt how much Romney actually shared social and religious conservatives’ political goals. Having no pro-life record worth mentioning, given his extremely convenient discovery of the evils of ESCR around the time he began preparing his presidential campaign, he seemed to offer pro-lifers little more than lip service in a campaign against a number of other candidates–including MCain!–whose pro-life credentials were far superior. Perhaps realizing that he had no credibility, Romney was constantly on the attack against his rivals by trying to paint them as insufficiently zealous in the cause. This wasn’t just a case of the zeal of the convert, but it was more like a con-man pretending to be a zealous convert lecturing long-time devotees on their lack of fidelity while trying to convince them to join his pyramid scheme. There were other liabilities, not least of which was his career in private equity firms and his identification with corporate America, which would have become huge drags on the ticket as the financial crisis unfolded.