Religious stereotypes have radically changed, too. John F. Kennedy put to rest the notion that a Catholic couldn't be elected president. In his famous speech to the Baptist pastors of Houston in 1960, he told how he "believed in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish." But who would have anticipated that a Mormon would revive issues of religious tolerance? But that's the elephant in Mitt Romney's room. No matter how many times his wife reminds us that he's the only one major candidate who has had only one wife, the popular perception of Mormons is randy men with a lot of wives. The television drama "Big Love," about a polygamist trying to swim in the Mormon mainstream of Utah, didn't put those early fears to rest.
There's a strong argument that Romney's faith would not ultimately be a mortal wound, even among the Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals in the South, but appeals to the stereotypes can still be effective, tapping into ancient prejudices. You could watch a television rerun of an episode of "Frazier." The leading character wants to get rid of his unscrupulous and immoral agent. He hires a Mormon who is scrupulously ethical, but his moral "goodness" drives Frazier nuts. He finally takes back the old "immoral" agent. Is there a lesson for the political consultants here?
No doubt Mitt Romney is working on a Kennedy-like speech to dispel both ignorance about Mormon beliefs and to enhance his standing with social conservatives. Nearly everyone thought Joe Lieberman, an observant Jew, would hurt the Democratic ticket in 2000, but there's no evidence that he cost Al Gore the election, and he probably helped. It's difficult to see how "family values" influenced by Mormon faith could hurt him, any more than Joe Lieberman's similarly strong "family values" hurt the Democrats in 2000.
A stereotype is a word taken from the printer's vocabulary, referring to copies from a model or mold. The speed with which we receive our images today limits the power of stereotypes. New ones arrive with the soundbites that litter the news cycle, every hour on the hour, exposing misleading shortcuts. There's more opportunity to dissect fallacies in the shortcuts, to get to the essence of the candidate. The winner next year will likely be the candidate who most skillfully cuts through the stereotype.