Are Mormons Keeping Mitt Romney Afloat?

His victories in the Pacific Islands and American West show the power of a strong minority to boost a weak candidate in low turn-out contests.


There are six kids in white shirts and black ties standing in a line. One steps forward and dances around the others, hissing and sneering like a bobcat. He moves to the front on the chorus and the boys start slapping their thighs in a steady one-two-three, one-two-three rhythm. The leader cries, "Grab the book from your pants!" They pull out a black book -- one-two-three. "Slap the book on your chest!" They slap away -- one-two-three. "Read the book, read the book, pray, pray!" One-two-three. "We've got the gospel, you get it, you get it?" Then they step towards the camera and wave their hands. "You come walk in the waters with meeee!" The boys fall to the floor in a fit of giggles. It's one of the odder sights on YouTube.

The book is The Book of Mormon and the boys are young missionaries. They are dancing a Mormon-themed version of the Maori war dance, or Haka -- just one of the many Mormon Haka videos posted on YouTube (if you want to see the dance done with real force, check out this version by by Mormons Elders Hopoate and Ofahulu in Australia.) This extraordinary cross-fertilization of Mormonism and Polynesian culture is quite common. It's a testament to the broad and growing reach of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- and hints at the political power of the Mormon diaspora.

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In a primary season as competitive as 2012, every delegate counts. For that reason, the votes of Republican Pacific islanders living in American territories and Hawaii have gained an unusual degree of importance. Last Saturday, beleaguered front-runner Mitt Romney won GOP caucuses in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. On Tuesday he scooped victories in American Samoa and Hawaii. Together, these islands have given him at least 36 delegates -- a small number, perhaps, but one more hard-earned step towards the nomination. He came in third in the American deep South last night, but he still was the day's delegate winner, thanks to the island caucuses.

Romney's victories owed something to the Pacific islands' large population of Mormons. In fact, local members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may have proved crucial to winning each of these caucuses. It wouldn't be the first case of Mormons bailing out Romney this campaign season. They've also helped his candidacy in two critical Western states -- demonstrating that Mormons aren't just a great fundraising network, but a surprisingly powerful demographic force within the world of low-turnout GOP primaries and caucuses.

The Mormon presence in the Pacific islands is certainly substantial. There are an estimated 14,784 Mormons in American Samoa -- where only about 70 Republicans gathered to caucus Tuesday -- and 55,000 in Hawaii -- where more 10,000 Republicans turned out -- along with 1,971 in Guam, and 735 in the Northern Marianas. The heavy concentration of converts is no coincidence. Polynesians have a special place in Mormon theology. According to some Mormons, thousands of years ago a group of Israelites, led by the prophet Lehi, escaped Babylonian captivity and sailed to freedom in Central America. Their new civilization flourished until it was destroyed in a civil war between the Nephite and Lamanite factions in 400AD. The sinful Lamanites, who won, were distinguished by a dark colored skin and were the forebears of the Native Americans.

According to the Mormon Book of Alma, a mixed group of Nephites and Lamanites sailed to Polynesia in 55BC. They settled down peacefully and, mixing with migrants from Southeast Asia, became the modern Polynesians. Many Mormons thus believe that the Polynesians practice a religion that is very close to the early Israelite church -- a claim supported by the fact that they share several myths in common with the Hebrew tradition, including one about a great flood. In the Mormon mind, Polynesians have a covenanted role to play in religious history. Being dark skinned, they bear the "mark" of the Lamanites. But, as the apocalypse approaches, the Book of Mormon prophesizes that they shall become "a white and delightsome people" (NB, the word "white" was changed to "pure" in 1981).


In fact, it was typical for Christian missionaries to claim that the Polynesians were a lost tribe of Israel: the first Protestant missionary to New Zealand in 1830 called the Maori "dispersed Jews." This helped justify the expense of evangelization, which continued apace during the 19th century. Mormons often get rough treatment when they try to spread their version of the Good News abroad. But in Polynesia they benefited from cultural norms about hospitality that made the locals natural converts. The LDS Church set up its first mission in Samoa in 1862 and, since then, it's been one of the most popular destinations for missionaries to go -- because Samoans have a culture of welcoming strangers and listen to what they have to say. Only local Protestant and Catholic churches resisted Mormon encroachment, retarding growth until after the Second World War. Since then, the American Samoan church has grown to a likely 22.5 percent of the population. The LDS Church puts the figure as high as 30 percent, and today's Republican vice chairman in American Samoa -- where Romney swept -- played football at Romney's alma mater, the Mormon-owned and operated Brigham Young University.

One of the reasons why Polynesians were drawn to Mormonism was that the Mormons were so generous. In addition to building schools locally, they welcomed migration to Utah. As a result, present-day Utah has a population of about 25,000 people of Pacific Islander descent. Although they tend to join wards (churches) in heavily Polynesian neighborhoods, there is little evidence of racial segregation. Given the sometimes difficult historical relationship between white Mormons and African-Americans, the LDS's embrace of Polynesians is an example of how its theology is oddly bifurcated. It has been capable of discriminating against one minority while positively fetishizing another, with the lines of racial demarcation shaped by the peculiarities of scripture.

Did the Mormon/Polynesia link make a difference in the Pacific island votes? Two things that suggest so. First, the Romney campaign made a big outreach to the islanders. The day before the Northern Marianas voted, Mitt's son Matt had lunch with the governor of the islands and the candidate dialed in to say sorry for not being there: "I am apologetic that I can't be with you today, but as you could imagine I'm running from place to place, trying to secure as many delegates as I can." Matt added, "It is important for us to get everywhere we can, everywhere that people vote. This is obviously one of the harder locations to get to but by far, it's one of my favorites so far." And Team Romney dominated among local endorsements -- including that of former Republican congressman Charles Djou of Hawaii, Hawaii House Minority Leader Gene Ward, and Guam Governor Eddie Calvo.

Second, turnout was so low that it's hard not to credit the sizable Mormon populations with some impact on the outcome. Even in the islands with tiny LDS communities, Mormons outnumber the people who participated in the vote. In Guam, only 207 people took part in the convention. There are 1,971 Mormons living on the island.

This is not to suggest a stitch up, but rather to note the surprising demographic strength of the LDS Church. Worldwide, its membership rocketed from 4 million in 1978 to 11 million members in 2000. In America, it has increased by about 30 percent since 1990. There is evidence that domestic growth has flat-lined, but heavy concentration in certain states has given it increased political clout.

Consider the importance of states with sizable Mormon populations to this year's primaries. Shortly after he won the Florida primary, Romney faced his first Western challenge in Nevada. Although he was always going to do well in The Silver State, a strong victory was necessary to prove that Florida wasn't a one off and he had momentum to carry him to victory in Michigan at the end of the month. Romney won Nevada with 50 percent. Importantly, turnout was a dismal 32,894 -- well below the total Mormon population of the state, at 174,662. According to CNN exit polls, a quarter of all participants were LDS members and 88 percent of them voted for Mitt. Nationwide, only 2 percent of Americans are Mormon.

One month later, there was Arizona. Arizona wasn't as important as Romney's home state of Michigan, which voted on the same day, but for a while Santorum was close to Romney in polls and it was vital that Mitt win the Arizona primary. He did so easily, by 47 percent. Turnout was 505,635. The local Mormon population is 381,235 and, according to CNN, 14 percent of voters were LDS members. Three days later came Washington state, which was, again, important for establishing Romney's credibility after a series of defeats by Santorum. Romney won with 38 percent on an appalling 1.4 percent turnout. The turnout equaled 50,764 Republicans -- in a state with a local Mormon population of 263,004. Romney has also won Idaho and Wyoming, both of which have high densities of LDS members (Idaho is the second most Mormon state in America, after Utah). It is surely significant that Mitt has yet to be truly tested in a Western state that doesn't have a significant population of Mormons. The only such challenge he has faced so far was in Colorado, which he lost 40 to 35 percent. Ergo, even if Mormons aren't directly responsible for Romney's Western victories, they have been critical to their scale and maintaining his campaign's momentum.

Much has been written about the role that Mormons have played in the 2012 race, but most of it has operated on a conceptual level. What might voters think of Romney's faith? How will Romney's beliefs influence his decision making? What has been less well studied is the precise impact of Mormon votes and communities on the primary outcome. Given their obvious significance in early Western votes and the way that they have helped add to Romney's delegate count in the Pacific islands, it's clear the extended Mormon family has delivered for Romney and proven itself to be a vital part of the Republican electoral process. If and when Romney sews up the nomination, their Haka may well be heard at the convention.