From my own and others' experience, I've come to believe that a presidential candidate's religion is usually thought to be a bigger deal with voters than it really is.
Hubert Humphrey comes to mind. He was the Minnesota U.S. senator who almost became president in 1968. During a previous run for the White House in 1960, Humphrey was locked in a head-to-head showdown with John F. Kennedy in West Virginia. That state's Democratic primary was considered the make-or-break indicator of whether America would accept Kennedy's Catholicism.
Humphrey was running out of money and momentum, but he managed to buy time on a West Virginia TV station. He fielded questions -- unscreened questions -- from viewers on the telephone.
It all went wrong. The phone connections wouldn't broadcast properly. When they did, confusion reigned.
The big blow came when a live caller got through to confront the jovial, colorful Humphrey. "You get out of West Virginia, Hubert Humphrey!"
That mishap symbolized Humphrey's doomed candidacy. Kennedy won West Virginia and thereby squelched the idea that America feared a Kennedy White House would be subordinate to the Vatican.
A new InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion survey of 486 registered Republican voters in South Carolina hints that the Palmetto State may be a West Virginia-caliber hurdle for Mitt Romney's candidacy. We asked:
"Are you aware that Mitt Romney is of the Mormon faith?"
Yes: 88 percent
No: 12 percent
Next, we asked:
"Would Mitt Romney's Mormon faith make you more or less likely to vote for him in the South Carolina primary?"
More likely: 13 percent
Less Likely: 45 percent
Don't know/undecided: 42 percent
The survey was conducted October 17. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percent, and has been weighted for age and gender.
At face value, these numbers appear to make Romney's effort in the first Deep South primary to be about more than just winning or losing X number of delegates. It could also signal whether the country as a whole is ready for a Mormon president.
Romney has been portrayed by many in the GOP as the logical candidate for so-called "religious right" voters; those who might be disappointed that Republican frontrunner Rudy Giuliani is pro-choice, and who also are aware that John McCain traditionally has problems in South Carolina.
In fact, the son of the late Bob Jones of Bob Jones University endorsed Romney. That institution is a center for conservative education in South Carolina, and is known for it elsewhere.