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Will Romney put more emphasis on his Mormonism in a 2016 campaign?

 Romney at the Reagan Day Dinner Gala Wednesday, April 11, 2007, in Dallas, Texas.
Romney at the Reagan Day Dinner Gala Wednesday, April 11, 2007, in Dallas, Texas.
(Charles Ommanney/Getty)

When Mitt Romney ran against President Obama in 2012, his campaign was nervous to draw attention to his Mormon faith. But if Romney jumps back in 2016, that just might change — and it might be good for him.

The public already knows about his faith, so it's likely that he won't be as reticent to discuss it, as Kirk Jowers, a Mormon family friend, explained to the New York Times. "In 2008, Romney risked being a caricature of the Mormon candidate. Now everyone seems to know everything about him, and that will be very liberating for him to talk about his faith."

But even if most Americans know that Romney's a Mormon, many admit they don't know that much about his religious tradition. A recent Pew poll showed that only 14 percent of Americans knew "a great deal" about Mormonism, with almost 50 percent saying they knew little to nothing.

Familiarity with Mormonism

Around the same time that Romney announced his bid for president, Mormonism became the butt of one of the biggest jokes on Broadway. (Romney launched his campaign June 2, 2011 ; Book of Mormon opened on March 24 of the same year.) Written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, The Book of Mormon — a satirical musical about two Mormon missionaries in Uganda — became an instant smash on Broadway, breaking box office records and winning the Tony Award for Best Musical.

Mormon 3

But in spite of pop culture's interest in Mormonism, Romney remained guarded about his religion on the campaign trail. As a result, most Americans (82 percent) "say they learned little or nothing about the Mormon religion during the presidential campaign," according to Pew. In fact, the percentage of Americans (50 percent) who knew nothing/not much about Mormonism stayed roughly the same from 2007-2012.

On the other hand, the case could be made that Romney had a positive impact — however small — on Americans' overall perception of Mormonism. "When asked in an open-ended question what one word best describes the Mormon religion, more people [offered] a positive descriptor [in 2012] than did so [in 2011]," writes Pew. (Notably, however, the most common word associated with the religion is "cult," with five percent of respondents using it to describe Mormonism.)

The question, then, is what will religion look like in a Romney 2016 campaign? The New York Times article suggests he's less afraid this time of confronting a caricature, since more Americans are aware of his faith.

Romney identify

But, of course, the biggest problem for Romney wasn't his image as a Mormon — it was the caricature of a greedy businessman who "likes firing people" that Democrats successfully applied to him.

Speaking freely about his religious convictions to the American public won't erase that narrative, but it might mitigate his image as a Republican devoid of empathy.