On Dec. 19, Mitt Romney appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman to read “The Top Ten Things Mitt Romney Would Like to Say to the American People.” He gazed into the camera and deadpanned, “Isn’t it time for a President who looks like a 1970s game show host?” He also poked fun at his helmet hair and took a jab at Newt Gingrich. One thing absent from the list: his religion. In speeches, Romney often talks about faith and prayer but rarely mentions that he is a devout Mormon. Perhaps that’s because national polls show many Americans—particularly evangelical Christians he needs to win—know little about the religion and are suspicious of it. A June Gallup poll found that 18 percent of Republicans wouldn’t vote for a Mormon for President.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is out to change that. In late December the church aired a slick television spot in cities across the country. It features a folksy American named Norman Tolk talking about balancing science with faith. “I’m a physics professor,” he says, smiling. “I’m a father. I’m a grandfather with 17 grandkids. I play with lasers. And I’m a Mormon.” On Dec. 27 the ad ran 31 times on stations from Seattle to Indianapolis during The Dr. Oz Show, The King of Queens, Wheel of Fortune, and other popular programs that attract conservative audiences.
The ads are part of a broader TV, Internet, and billboard campaign designed to introduce the public to a diverse group of real-life Mormons, who bear no resemblance to the creepy, polygamist character portrayals on such fictional TV shows as HBO’s Big Love. Characters in other “I’m a Mormon” ads include an African-American high school student, a former pro football player of Samoan descent, and an Italian beekeeper.
In 2011 the Mormon church spent about $4.6 million to run the spots 7,899 times, according to data from the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political ad spending. Church representatives say the campaign is not politically motivated despite its heavy rotation in a Presidential primary race that features two Mormon candidates. In an e-mailed statement, Michael Purdy, the church’s director of media relations, says the ads reflect the church’s “strict position” of political neutrality. “Obviously, there is a national conversation going on about the church, and we simply want to be part of that discussion.”
For years, the Mormon church ran TV ads proselytizing to nonbelievers by pitching itself as a spiritual refuge from the suffering, doubt, and existential confusion of modern life. The Mormons spent $4.4 million on various ads in 2007, $4 million in 2008, $4.6 million in 2009, and $6.6 million in 2010. The current ad campaign promotes something different. Rather than salvation, the church is highlighting the everyday likeability of its adherents. That stands to benefit a certain Mormon Presidential candidate.
Although it claims not to take sides, the church has done so in some of the nation’s most contentious political battles. In the 1970s, LDS leaders organized to prevent the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. In 2008 the church threw its vast institutional resources behind Proposition 8, the successful effort to ban same-sex marriage in California. By mobilizing its members it helped to raise an estimated $20 million in support of the measure and provided many on-the-ground volunteers.
The church’s role drew intense criticism from the left, including protests outside Mormon churches. As the Presidential campaign got under way, LDS President Thomas Monson sent a letter to Mormon leaders around the country emphasizing the imperative of political nonpartisanship.
To underscore the point, Purdy notes the TV ads aren’t running in early primary states. What he doesn’t mention is that in the past 90 days the “I’m a Mormon” spots aired 253 times in Omaha—a broadcast market that happens to reach viewers, and voters, just over the border in Iowa.