Southern Whites Troubled by Romney’s Wealth, Religion

Margot Roosevelt, Reuters, September 11, 2012

Sheryl Harris, a voluble 52-year-old with a Virginia drawl, voted twice for George W. Bush. Raised Baptist, she is convinced—despite all evidence to the contrary—that President Barack Obama, a practicing Christian, is Muslim.

So in this year’s presidential election, will she support Mitt Romney? Not a chance.

“Romney’s going to help the upper class,” said Harris, who earns $28,000 a year as activities director of a Lynchburg senior center. “He doesn’t know everyday people, except maybe the person who cleans his house.”

She’ll vote for Obama, she said: “At least he wasn’t brought up filthy rich.”

White lower- and middle-income voters such as Harris are wild cards in this vituperative presidential campaign. With only a sliver of the electorate in play nationwide, they could be a deciding factor in two southern swing states, Virginia and North Carolina.

Reuters/Ipsos polling data compiled over the past several months shows that, across the Bible Belt, 38 percent of these voters said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who is “very wealthy” than one who isn’t. This is well above the 20 percent who said they would be less likely to vote for an African-American.

{snip} Virginia airwaves are saturated with Democratic ads hammering Romney’s Cayman Islands investments and his refusal to release more than two years of tax returns.

{snip}

A former private equity executive with a net worth of some $250 million, Romney vehemently disputes insinuations that he has paid less taxes than required by law. {snip}

The GOP nominee’s lucrative business career, which he touts far more than his record as governor of Massachusetts, does resonate with many Southern conservatives. “I don’t like to see the wealthy punished for their success,” said Cory Beaver, 26, as he waited on customers at a Lynchburg restaurant. “Obama leans toward socialism.”

Romney’s opposition to gay marriage and his commitment to reversing the Supreme Court’s decision granting women the right to abortion also gain him more support in the Bible Belt than in other regions of the country.

{snip}

Focusing on 11 states from Virginia and North Carolina to Texas and Oklahoma, the Reuters/Ipsos polling project canvassed 8,690 people in households with incomes under $55,000 a year—just above the U.S. median.

Non-Hispanic whites in this bracket have skewed Republican for more than three decades, and they prefer the GOP nominee to Obama by 46 percent to 29 percent. However, as Romney launches a post-convention ad blitz, those numbers could signal trouble for his campaign. Strategists in both parties figure that to offset the president’s expected landslide among an expanding electorate of blacks and Hispanics—Obama won 80 percent of minority votes in 2008—Romney must garner more than 60 percent of the white vote overall.

In Virginia, polls show the candidates virtually tied. The state’s 5.9 percent unemployment rate, well below the 8.1 percent national average, works in Obama’s favor. Overall, 35 percent of the electorate is black, Hispanic or Asian.

{snip}

At Liberty’s May commencement, Romney, a Mormon, sought to stake out common ground with fundamentalist Christians. Without directly mentioning the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, as the Mormon church is formally known, he told the crowd of 34,000: “People of different faiths, like yours and mine . . . can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview.”

According to Reuters/Ipsos polling data, however, 35 percent of voters overall, and the same proportion of lower- and middle-income white Bible Belt voters, say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who is Mormon.

Many evangelicals who would normally vote Republican say they view Mormonism as a cult.

Several of those interviewed in Lynchburg were devotees of the TV series “Big Love” and “Sister Wives,” about polygamous Mormon families. They were unaware that the Mormon Church long ago renounced polygamy.

“Mormons don’t believe like we believe,” said Dianna McCullough, a retired factory worker, as she tossed salad in a Tree of Life Ministries soup kitchen. “Like the wives—Romney’s probably got more than one.”

Still, she is undecided in the election. “The gay marriage thing hurts Obama,” she said. “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

{snip}

Four years ago, almost a quarter of voters identified themselves as white Protestant evangelicals in exit polls. Obama won only a quarter of them. This year, many passionately want to defeat him.

In a survey conducted this summer by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, almost a third of Republicans said they believe Obama is Muslim, compared with 16 percent of independents and 8 percent of Democrats. The falsehood is a frequent theme of conservative talk radio.

Still, the challenge for the GOP is to ensure that white evangelicals, most of whom voted for other candidates in the primary, are sufficiently enthusiastic about Romney to make it to the polls.

{snip}

Among low- and middle-income white Bible Belt voters, 21 percent in the Reuters/Ipsos polling data said they are uncertain they will vote in the presidential election. That’s not much more than the 17 percent of other respondents who were uncertain. But in a group that leans Republican, it could be enough to hurt Romney.

{snip}

According to the Reuters/Ipsos data, 35 percent of the white Southern group saw Romney as having a “better approach” to taxes, while 25 percent thought Obama does.

Paradoxically, the same group agreed by more than 4 to 1 with the statement: “The wealthiest Americans should pay higher taxes,” which is Obama’s campaign theme.

{snip}

Overall, 54 percent of Americans—and a decisive 69 percent of white low- and median-income Southerners—opposed Obamacare, according to the Reuters/Ipsos data. But when asked about specific parts of the law, the results largely favored the president.

Both groups opposed the provision that would require them to buy health insurance. However, by more than 2 to 1, both supported making businesses with more than 50 employees offer insurance and forcing insurance companies to cover people with preexisting conditions.

{snip}

A Romney ad asserts that “Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you a welfare check.” Independent fact-checkers say the ad distorts the administration’s plan to give states more flexibility on work rules—a request that came from Republican governors.

In Lynchburg, however, it resonates with some white conservatives. At the Modern Barber Shop on Main Street, where the Ten Commandments are displayed in the window, a group of retirees chatted about the election on a recent morning.

“I don’t believe in free handouts,” said Robert McCanna, a former accountant. “Obama is pitting blacks against whites.”

Retired truck driver Lyle Campbell interjected, “If I was black, I would get anything I want.”

{snip}

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