"The Branding of 'Mormon' Politicians and Its Consequences:
An Historical Analysis"

William Swadley, Jr.

SquareTwo, Vol. 4 No. 1 (Spring 2011)






           In the midst of Mitt Romney’s 2008 bid for President of the United States, well known entertainment figure, Laurence O’Donnell, appeared on the television program, The McLaughlin Group. During his visit to the show, O’Donnell conjured a poignant image of Mitt Romney and his religious affiliation, stating in reference to Romney: “His religion is based on the work of a lying, fraudulent criminal named Joseph Smith who was a racist, who was pro-slavery, whose religion was completely pro-slavery" [1]. Despite the inaccuracies in his statements, O’Donnell effectively reinforced a perception in the minds of some voters: Romney was connected to a religion worthy of voter concern. That very perception proved a persistent problem throughout Romney’s campaign.

Mitt Romney is one of several politicians to confront a negative perception of his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [2]; Reed Smoot faced related challenges more than a century earlier. In 1902, Smoot was elected to the United States Senate, but a public hearing was held to determine if he should keep his seat. The reason? Smoot’s link to the Church. Although there are other historical examples, Romney and Smoot are particularly good examples that raise the question of why Mormon politicians face such reservations from voters outside of or unfamiliar with the faith. Although many elements likely play a role in stigmatizing Mormonism, one that should not be overlooked is the public image, which has been largely created by sources outside of the faith.   

A helpful way to view the situation these two Mormon politicians have faced is through the lens of marketing. Marketing extends far beyond retail stores and shopping centers; in our modern-day world, marketing helps shape public opinion in every aspect of life. Within marketing is a concept known as “branding” that has taken deep root in the political arena. One expert defines the concept this way, “Branding is about making meaning – taking the individual aspects of a product and turning them into more than the sum of their parts. It is about giving consumers something to think and feel about a product or service beyond its physical attributes" [3]. This attempt to make meaning is applied to candidates running for political office. The main sources that create a candidates brand are the candidate’s campaign team, the opponents (along with their teams) and the media. In some cases the branding is intentional; in others it is an unintended result. This technique of branding is clearly present in the case of Reed Smoot and Mitt Romney and thereby played a fateful role in their political experience.

This article explains branding and how it has been applied to Reed Smoot and Mitt Romney. Many voices in the media -- including public figures and political opponents of Romney and Smoot -- either deliberately or inadvertently used branding tactics to shape public perception of these two prominent Mormon politicians. Furthermore, this article examines ways in which Mormons branded themselves and, by extension, how those brands have been applied to Mormon politicians. Four aspects of branding form the conceptual framework of this article: Brand Equity, Perceived Quality, Brand Loyalty and Brand Positioning. After introducing these concepts, analysis will demonstrate how Reed Smoot was able to reinvent his own brand and then suggest ways Mitt Romney might eventually do the same. Through careful attention to branding, Mormon politicians might use appropriate methods to avoid the negative branding of the past and create a more positive image that can serve them well in future elections.

I. Key Concepts in Branding

Before analyzing how branding affected the political fortunes of Reed Smoot and Mitt Romney, it is important to understand four key concepts. The following definitions are described in marketing terms, but can easily be applied to politics.

A. Perceived Quality. The term “perceived quality” refers to “the customer’s perception of the overall quality or superiority of a product or service with respect to its intended purpose, relative to alternatives. Perceived quality is, first, a perception by customers" [4]. A statement made by a manager in the business word applies appropriately to the political spectrum: “if a company loses its resources and money, but retains its reputation, it can always be rebuilt. But if it loses its reputation, no amount of money and resources will bring it back" [5]. Many politicians have lost their reputation as the result of a single action and have been unable to regain their previous status, while other politicians have been able to rebound financially due to their positive personal reputation.

B. Brand Loyalty. In marketing, “brand loyalty is “a measure of the attachment that a customer has to a brand [6]. It reflects how likely a customer will be to switch to another brand, especially when that brand makes a change, either in price or features. As brand loyalty increases, the vulnerability of the customer base to competitive action is reduced" [7]. Several factors that produce customer loyalty are habitual behavior, costs associated with switching, satisfaction and the customer’s relationship with the brand [8]. Brand loyalty plays an interesting role in politics; often a voter is more influenced by loyalty to a candidate or party than by the specific platform or qualifications of the candidate.  

C. Brand Positioning. Another key ingredient in effective marketing is “brand positioning.” “Positioning is closely related to the association and image concepts except that it implies a frame of reference, the reference point usually being the competition. A well-positioned brand will have a competitively attractive position supported by strong associations" [9]. In politics, Brand Positioning can be seen in a variety of contexts. The candidate’s party affiliation is often the first step in positioning him or her in relation to other candidates. Next, a candidate may try to position him or herself in a way to gain the attention of a certain demographic or segment of society.

D. Brand Equity. A fourth important ingredient in marketing a product is “brand equity.” This element refers to “a set of brand assets and liabilities linked to a brand, its name and symbol that add to or subtract from the value provided by a product or service to a firm and/or to that firm’s customers" [10]. Politicians are frequently defined by symbols that become associated with their term of office. For instance, a politician may be symbolized by war, economic prosperity, scandal or any other number of images that remain in the minds of voters.

II. The Branding of Reed Smoot

A careful examination of the case of Reed Smoot, employing the concepts of perceived quality, brand loyalty, brand positioning and brand equity, explains much of the public opinion toward him. The challenges that Smoot faced were not because of anything he personally did but rather by what he represented in the minds of Americans. Smoot, because of his Mormonism, was a brand that caused a great deal of concern in the early 20h century.

In 1902, the Mormon apostle and Republican, Reed Smoot was elected by the Utah legislature to the United States Senate. At this time, a wave of criticism swept through the nation in regard to Smoot’s holding of that office. The concern was two-pronged; (1) Smoot was a Mormon and (2) he was an apostle in the church hierarchy. This national reaction was the result of several decades of volatile relations between the federal government and Mormonism. The fact of his Mormon membership may have been grudgingly tolerated but his leadership position within that religion tipped the scale against him. Smoot was initially seated by the Senate but two days later the Committee on Privileges and Elections came to the decision that a public hearing was necessary [11]. The hearing would determine if Smoot should keep his seat and began a public spectacle that lasted until 1907.

A. Perceived Quality. Reed Smoot was conjoined more closely to Mormonism than any other elected politician of his faith before or since. For many people it was difficult to see Smoot and not think of Mormonism. In the eyes of the public, the only variable in his attachment to the Church was to what degree he was being manipulated by its leadership. This perception proved especially detrimental considering the recent Mormon repudiation of legislation concerning the practice of plural marriage. The previous legislative attempts to squelch Mormon polygamous marriages came in the form of the Morrill anti-polygamy law (1862), the Edmunds Law (1882) and the Edmunds-Tucker Law (1887); each successive law attempted to tighten up loop holes found in the previous law [12]. Mormons retained the practice of plural marriage on the grounds that such legislation was unconstitutional as it violated their first amendment rights. Consequently, leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continued to condone the practice in defiance of the federal government. The Supreme Court eventually concluded that anti-polygamy legislation was constitutional. The Church’s acts of legislative defiance reflected heavily on Reed Smoot, although Smoot himself was monogamous and had no active participation in plural marriage.

The public sentiment toward the Mormon apostle/senator can be seen in public statements, petitions, artistic depictions of the day and even the hearing itself. President Theodore Roosevelt injected his opinion early, advising against the election of an apostle to the Senate [13]. Smoot stayed in the race, and more opposition came after the victory. One historian described the concerted opposition this way: “The concerns of both church and state leaders were validated when, six days after the election, the Salt Lake Ministerial Association petitioned the President and Congress to reject Smoot’s credentials. They protested that Smoot was part of an ecclesiastical conspiracy that impermissibly ruled Utah’s citizens and used its power to violate federal antipolygamy law, making Smoot a law breaker by association" [14]. Smoot was seated anyway - and subsequently an organized effort was made to prevent him from retaining his seat.

Smoot would next be faced with multiple women’s organizations hoping to unseat him. The women’s associations tended to inflate the repugnant image of Mormon plural marriage; the popular image motivated their efforts, and through their endeavors they expanded the caricature. The list of such organizations that offered public objections to Smoot were the Interdenominational Council of Women for Christian and Patriotic Service, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the National Mother’s Congress, among others [15]. Similar organizations publicly insisted that Mormon women were an oppressed and tormented segment of society. The perception held by these organizations was reflected by a contemporary cartoon. The cartoon depicts a man with five women, all of whom are chained around the neck. The women look very homely and seem to be in a state of despair. This image and others like it seem to indicate that the Mormon women would gladly run free if only they could be released from the grasp of tyrannical Mormon men. The association of Smoot with an institution depicted as despicable was a great detriment to his public image.

"An Unsightly Object: Who Will Take the Axe and Hew It Down?" (The Judge Magazine, January 28, 1882)

Images of this nature are particularly helpful in understanding the concept of branding. The purpose of branding is to create a certain association between multiple subjects so that when it is seen by the observer, it conjures a particular feeling or opinion. This cartoon and those of a similar nature associated polygamy and bondage, creating a negative association. The aim of the cartoon was not to depict reality but to fantasize the state of mainstream Mormon society. Branding of this nature is contrived through ignoring information that would create an alternative association with the same subject. A Mormon woman voiced her frustration with polygamous perception in an editorial by saying, “We affirm just as strongly as our opponents that instead of degrading, plural marriage elevates; we and hundreds of others have proven it by practical experience" [16]. Women inside Mormonism recognized the tactics being used by outsiders and decried what they saw as “a corrupt press, and an equally corrupt priestcraft…leagued against us" [17]. For an extended period of time Mormons had dealt with a negative perception held by outsiders, which was not a problem as long as they were in isolation. However, when Mormons such as Smoot wanted to become involved in national politics, they had to work to create a new Mormon image. The Mormon image rebuilding came in part through the Smoot hearings of the early 20th century.

B. Brand Loyalty. Politicians are often seen for their political party association and are thereby able to capitalize on the voter’s loyalty to that party. In the case of Reed Smoot, he had to diligently strive to be seen for his party affiliation. In an effort to remind Americans of his Republican ties he stated, “I was a Republican before I was an apostle" [18]. Smoot’s ultimate success in retaining his seat would hinge on his ability to convince fellow Republican senators of that statement’s symbolic authenticity. Smoot would struggle to gain loyalty for at least two reasons: Mormonism was outside the prevalent Protestant church model and Mormons long practiced a theocratic model that differed from the democratic model. At the time of Smoot’s election to the Senate, Americans saw Smoot’s brand as being at odds with other brands of choice.  

Despite the separation of church and state that existed in the United States, during Smoot’s time period membership in Protestant churches was more politically acceptable than in non-Protestant churches. In order to understand the Protestant dominance in mainstream politics, it is necessary to briefly examine aspects of colonial America. Puritans and Presbyterians sought refuge in America and settled Plymouth in 1620 [19]. In the 18th century, religious freedom was established in the United States and the variety of churches increased. However, this did not mean that all churches were welcomed or treated equally. One scholar has described the Catholic situation by referring to the 1790 census: “There were no figures in that census for Roman Catholics because Catholics were still not welcome in the English colonies: they were not allowed to live in some places, not permitted to hold public office or own land in others" [20]. The 19th century saw the marginalization of other non-Protestant religions, including Mormonism [21]. This marginalization carried over to government and many Protestant politicians were not eager to see a Mormon apostle become part of the establishment. 

The Protestant church model had been the norm, but the Reed Smoot situation was a vivid reminder that outsiders could no longer be held at bay. As one historian said, “His arrival in Washington was a very public signal that freedom to be religious could no longer mean freedom to be one of the varieties of Protestantism" [22]. There was a certain sense of urgency among Protestants who feared the Mormon influence. One Presbyterian stated this urgency in unequivocal terms: “Beware of the Octopus. There is a moment in which to seize it, says Victor Hugo. It is when it thrusts forth its head. It has done it. Its high priest claims a senator’s chair in Washington. Now is the time to strike. Perhaps to miss it now is to be lost" [23]. Many Protestants rallied in joint opposition, not against the Catholic Church but against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The leaders of the effort drew on the sense of loyalty to the Protestant brand. The issue was not simply a man seeking to retain a political office; it was viewed as a Mormon apostle seeking to assist his church hierarchy in an effort to corrupt Protestant America. The implementation of branding created a drama that was far bigger than Smoot.  

Another issue that extended outside of, but included, Protestantism, was the form of government that had long been a part of Mormonism. Protestants and the rest of America saw an undemocratic practice in which the Mormon leaders held significant leadership responsibility outside of religious matters. Smoot would need to convince America that Mormons were willing to conform to a democracy and leave behind old theocratic tendencies. 

The theocratic model posits a political system that is governed by God. This system worked quite well for Mormons who believed a conduit existed between their prophet and their God. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints founder, Joseph Smith, established this system of government that was in full bloom at Nauvoo, Illinois. Under Smith’s leadership, the lines between religion and government were blurred in an effort to bring all things within God’s purview. The elimination of those boundaries became obvious to all as Smith acquired increasing civic responsibility. One historian illustrated this fact by explaining:

Since May 1842 he had served concurrently as LDS Church president, as trustee-in-trust  for church finances, as Nauvoo mayor (to replace Bennett), as chief justice of Nauvoo’s municipal court, and as lieutenant general and commanding officer of the Nauvoo Legion. By the end of 1842 the prophet was also an applicant to become postmaster […] he also became a member of the newly organized board of health. In addition, since March 1842 he was registrar of deeds, a position and function not authorized by Illinois law or the Nauvoo Charter [24].

Smith was not the only leader in the Church who held civic positions; it was not unusual to be straddling the line that separated church and state. Contemporary Americans of Smith’s day observed the Mormon effort to bring all things under God’s government with the prophet as his spokesman. Smith’s successor Brigham Young acquired a good deal of governmental responsibility as territorial governor. Even after he was replaced, he exercised a great deal of influence in governmental matters. Several decades later, concerned Americans saw in Smoot an apostle with a legitimate opportunity to become successor to these leaders with theocratic tendencies. Therefore, Americans were more likely to support a politician who represented democracy and not theocracy. 

Through the efforts of those opposed to Reed Smoot retaining his seat, Brand Loyalty became a part of the hearing. Over the course of the four years of the hearing, Smoot’s brand was depicted as one that was detrimental to both Protestants and democracy-loving Americans; any citizen with a positive affinity for either was suddenly making a decision about allegiance. It was no longer about being for or against Smoot, but a choice between Smoot or Protestantism and democracy. The effect of Brand Loyalty in the case of Smoot cannot be overlooked.

C. Brand Positioning. As the Smoot hearing went on, it became apparent that Mormonism (Smoot by association) was considered un-American. Mormons chose to listen to their religious leaders rather than Congress in the case of plural marriage; it was thought that Mormons made certain vows in the temple that made their allegiance to America questionable. Smoot, Joseph F. Smith (President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), and others were forced by necessity to smooth over these concerns during the hearing. These measures were taken to reposition Smoot and Mormonism as law-abiding and patriotic in the mind of America.        

This history of legal insubordination in the case of polygamy made Americans leery of having a Mormon, not to mention an apostle, in their legislative body. One historian commented on this uneasiness in the following way: “America’s problem with the Latter-day Saints was not simply or even primarily a matter of unlawful action, but of conflicting authority. The Latter-day Saints appealed to the law of their god, given through modern prophets, to justify resistance to the law of the land" [25]. The question being asked by Americans was who ultimately received the allegiance of Mormons, the federal government or the ecclesiastical government, the president or the prophet? As one astute contemporary observer concluded, Mormons were not so unique in the placement of their priorities: “You say that the Mormon church [sic] claims to be superior to the government. So do all orthodox churches, and the thirteen united colonies were founded on the principle that conscience is superior to law, and I say to you that although a law-abiding woman and a lawyer by profession for twenty-five years, whenever a law impinges on my conscience, as the old Fugitive Slave law did, it is conscience first and not the law. God is above the law and the constitution" [26]. In theory, at least, Americans could agree to the concept of following the conscience above all else. In practice, however, Americans were not pleased with the results when Mormons exercised that idea. 

Although many Americans with religious sympathies would agree with conscience over law, at least three facts made the Mormon situation different: (1) American society was generally in agreement that plural marriage was abhorrent and immoral; and (2) the Mormon–federal government conflict was fresh, and Mormons did not have the benefit of forgiveness and forgetting that often come with the passage of time; and (3) many American citizens and lawmakers were suspicious that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was still privately condoning the practice of plural marriage, despite publicly disavowing the practice in 1890. Allowing an apostle into the Senate seemed akin to turning the outlaw into a deputy shortly after being convicted of a crime and possibly while still in violation of the law; Americans would need some evidence of transformation in Mormon allegiance before their uneasiness would subside. Smoot’s election proved to be such an occasion to test Mormonism’s loyalty and also provide a look into America’s view of Mormonism.  

The questions posed to Reed Smoot and President Joseph F. Smith, as part of the hearing were indicative of the concerns held by Americans. When Smith was called in to testify, questioners sought to locate the placement of Mormon allegiance.       

Senator Hoar. […] Suppose you should receive a divine revelation, communicated to and sustained by your church, commanding your people to-morrow to do something forbidden by the law of the land. Which would it be their duty to obey?

Mr. Smith. They would be at liberty to obey just which they pleased. There is absolutely no compulsion.

Mr. Worthington. Have you finished your answer to that question, Mr. Smith?

Mr. Smith. I do not think I have quite. One of the standard principles of our faith, and one that has been read here to-day, is that we shall be obedient to the law. This is the word: “Let no man break the laws of the land, for he that keepeth the laws of God hath no need to break the laws of the land. Wherefore, be subject to the powers that be until He reigns whose right it is to reign, and subdues all enemies under his feet. Behold the laws which ye have received” – this is speaking to the church – “from my hand are the laws of the Church, and in this light ye shall hold them forth.” Not in conflict with the laws of the land, but simply as the laws of the church.

Senator Beveridge. Suppose them to be in conflict, Mr. Smith, which would control the conduct of the member of your church, the law of the land or the revelation?

Mr. Smith. I think under the discipline that we have had for the last twenty years our people would obey the law of the land. [27]
Americans saw the potential for future conflict between prophetic revelation and the law because such a conflict had already existed in the case of plural marriage. Smith, however, believed that the tension was relaxed between revelation and the law; Mormons would submit to the laws of the land. 

This was not the only concern over Mormon allegiance, however. It was also rumored the temple ceremony contained a disconcerting vow. When questioned, Smoot was asked about the secret Mormon temple ceremony. Claims had been verbalized that a vow made as part of the ceremony was in conflict with his senatorial oath. Although practicing Mormons were disinclined to discuss the temple ceremony, several disaffected Mormons willingly shared their recollections of a vow of vengeance [28]. Smoot was later questioned about his involvement with the temple ceremony. Smoot stated that he had been a part of the endowment ceremony as an eighteen year-old and scarcely remembered the content of the ceremony.

Mr. Worthington. Tell me whether or not at that time anything of this kind took place – that somebody said that which I am about to read, in substance, and that you assented to it: “That you and each of you do promise and vow that you will never cease to importune high heaven to avenge the blood of the prophets upon this nation.”

Senator Smoot. I did not

Mr. Worthington. Was there anything said about avenging the blood of the prophets or anything else on this nation or on this Government?

Senator Smoot. No, sir.

Mr. Worthington. Was there anything said about avenging the blood of Joseph Smith, jr., the prophet?

Senator Smoot. No, sir. And it seems very strange that such a thing should be spoken of, because the endowments have never changed, as I understand it; it has been so testified, and that Joseph Smith, jr., himself the founder of the endowments. It would be very strange, indeed, to have such an oath to avenge his death when he was alive.

Mr. Worthington. Now let me ask you whether when you took your oath as Senator of the United States you took it with any mental reservation?

Senator Smoot. None whatever. [29]

Smoot didn’t necessarily cast doubt that such a vow existed, but what he did do was distance himself from it. Based on the information provided in the hearing, it was clear that Smoot felt he had made no vow that conflicted with his senatorial oath. However, the suggestion that Mormonism was somehow un-American was detrimental to Smoot. As one historian commented, “Nevertheless, the apparent existence of the sentiment and its enshrining in liturgy, even as an artifact from Latter-day Saints’ past, evidenced a continuing antipathy toward the nation and, even in its most benign form, showed a desire for anything but the common good" [30]. Because of the way his church was positioned, Smoot was challenged in his effort to prove he was a loyal, well-intentioned politician.

D. Brand Equity. The preceding paragraphs have explained how Smoot became more of a symbol than a person, more of an image than a politician. Smoot became the representation of Mormonism in Washington. Nowhere is this seen more clearly that in the cartoon below.

The Real Objection to Smoot (Puck Magazine, April 27, 1904)

The cartoon shows a large figure (representing Mormonism) hoisting a little man (Smoot) through the senate chamber doors. The image suggests that Smoot is operating under the auspices and control of church hierarchy. Smoot is not in Washington as a politician but rather as a puppet. It is not surprising that Smoot was associated with Mormonism because he was, after all, an apostle. But what is surprising is that he came to symbolize aspects of Mormonism that did not authentically define him. He had never practiced polygamy, but he came to symbolize the practice. He was not in any way rebellious against the government, but his loyalty to United States was questioned. The implementation of branding effectively turned Reed Smoot into something more than he really was. Over a hundred years later another Mormon would seek a high public office and encounter difficulty in becoming elected because of branding. During the passage of time, the national identity would alter significantly but Mormonism would still be an issue.

In the end, Smoot was victorious in retaining his seat but he did not completely bridge the gap between Mormonism and the rest of the country. To his credit, he was able to satisfactorily demonstrate that church-sponsored polygamy was a thing of the past [31]. His success came primarily by separating himself from the Church’s controversial practices, gaining support from outside sources and through demonstrating his own personal character traits and political talents. As one historian states, “Smoot’s ability to ingratiate himself with the president and some of the most powerful republicans in the Senate was, without doubt, a boon to his case. Yet Smoot’s likeability could have only facilitated, not created, the result of the hearing. Just as important as friendship was the administration’s self-interest and political acumen" [32]. These forces all combined in Smoot’s favor and carried him to success. During the 30 years of his time in office, the national perception of Mormonism began to change. “Mormonism was no longer perceived as a political threat, merely an ethnic peculiarity. The Latter-day Saints had succeeded in becoming merely odd" [33]. Although Mormonism would become increasingly mainstream throughout the remainder of the 20th century, its peculiarity would still be a hurdle for Mormon politicians in the 21st century. 

III. The Branding of Mitt Romney

On the evening of December 6, 2007, the eyes of the nation fixated on College Station, Texas. There in the George H. W. Bush Library, Mitt Romney was expected to address the subject of his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Curious viewers anticipated a discussion of a candidate’s religious faith in an event without parallel since John F. Kennedy’s speech on his Catholic faith in 1960. Romney began by stating he would speak on religious liberty and added, “I will also offer perspectives on how my own faith would inform my presidency, if I were elected" [34]. From the time Romney had officially entered the presidential race, Americans had been wondering what it might be like to have a Mormon in the White House. Romney was not the first Mormon presidential candidate but he was considered to have a better chance than any of his predecessors [35]. Romney had been reluctant to give the speech on religion, and the fact that he finally relented to address the issue directly was a lucid indicator of the lingering unease and ignorance on the part of the public regarding the role that Mormonism would play in his presidency, if elected.

A. Perceived Quality. Mitt Romney had a strong resume at the time he entered into the contestation for the presidential office [36]. His resume included being a Harvard graduate, a successful businessman, the CEO and perceived redeemer of the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, and a successful term as governor of Massachusetts. He also had the benefit of being the son of a governor and presidential candidate. On top of his impressive accomplishments, Romney demonstrated admirable personal traits. “Mitt Romney, unlike most candidates, had virtually no scandalous baggage. Unable to focus on his personal, financial, or sexual wrongdoing, both the press and his opposition focused on his religion" [37]. Romney’s challenge would be to focus the media and voters on his public policies rather than his personal piety.

Early speculations about Mitt Romney’s presidential bid were positive and many speculated that his religious faith would be a minor or non-existent factor. Mark McKinnon, who had been a political insider for years, claimed, “The Mormon issue is way overstated" [38]. Others echoed similar statements but as the election drew nearer, the Mormon concern grew greater.  Some Americans were open about the substance of their reservations, while others presented political façades instead. For instance, Romney was frequently denounced as a “flip-flopper” for altering some of his past political stances. This accusation was primarily based on some of Romney’s policy changes; however, there is evidence to support an additional motive for such a claim. A poll conducted by Vanderbilt University and Claremont Graduate University exposed the fact that some people used the “flip-flopper” allegation to mask their true concern. One of the conductors of the survey stated, “Our survey shows that 26 percent of those who accuse Romney of flip-flopping also indicate that Mormonism, not flip-flopping, is their problem with Romney" [39]. The results also indicated that this trend was even stronger among evangelical Christians. Despite Romney’s personal qualifications, his personal beliefs were determining his value as a candidate. 

Despite the passage of time between Smoot and Romney’s candidacies, Romney was ultimately forced to deal with the branding practices that were employed in the Smoot case. Romney was not a member of church hierarchy at the time of his candidacy but was still strongly associated with Mormonism in the public mind. The public perception of Mormonism had changed over the past century, but some of the same concerns still remained. One scholar sought to define the modern American concern with the religion by stating the following:

Mormonism’s political problem arises, in large part, from the disconcerting split between its public and private faces. The church’s most inviting public symbols – pairs of clean-cut missionaries in well-pressed white shirts – evoke the wholesome success of an all-American denomination with an idealistic commitment to clean living. Yet at the same time, secret, sacred temple rites and garments call to mind the church’s murky past, including its embrace of polygamy, which has not been the doctrine or practice of the mainstream Church of Jesus Chris of Latter-day Saints, or LDS, for a century. Mormonism, it seems, is extreme in both respects: in its exaggerated normalcy and its exaggerated oddity. The marriage of these opposites leaves outsiders uncomfortable, wondering what Mormonism really is. [40]

If this scholar’s conclusions are correct, it seems that the concerns of the early 20th century had become entangled with a newfound respect for the Mormon people. Rather than being seen as the abhorrent, un-American dissenters of Smoot’s day, they were now seen as pro-American patriots with a strange history and private life. The progression of perception may have allowed Mormons to more fully participate in society but it did not remove all of the stumbling blocks for Mormon politicians. Mitt Romney, unlike Reed Smoot, was always seen as an American by voters, but he struggled to remove the brand of being a non-Christian in order to reach key voters.

B. Brand Loyalty. Mike Huckabee made political waves as a result of religious commentary in a New York Times interview. Because Huckabee held a theological degree, such a topic was not unusual. The reporter began by asking if he thought Mormonism was a cult or a religion. ‘“I think it’s a religion,” he said. “I really don’t know much about it’" [41]. The reporter described what followed next, “I was about to jot down this piece of boilerplate when Huckabee surprised me with a question of his own: “Don’t Mormons,” he asked in an innocent voice, “believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?’” [42]

After the story broke, a public discussion began concerning the intention behind Huckabee’s question. Many people believed that a trained minister and experienced politician either knew the answer to the question or knew better than to ask it. Huckabee explained why he posited such a question to the reporter by saying, “Well, he was telling me things about the Mormon faith, because he frankly is fairly well-schooled on comparative religions. And so as a part of that conversation, I asked the question, because I had heard that, and I asked it not to create something – I never thought it would make the story" [43]. Regardless of Huckabee’s intentions, his question drew, or at least re-emphasized, a line of distinction between himself and fellow religious candidate, Mitt Romney. This distinction would become very significant as each of these two candidates were vying for the evangelical vote. 

For Mitt Romney, or any Republican Party candidate, the evangelical vote is of great importance. “Evangelical Christians had become a critical component of the GOP coalition – in the 2000 and 2004 election they were viewed as the decisive demographic group" [44]. The evangelical impact is magnified by the influence of these voters in early voting states. “In the early voting states of Iowa and South Carolina, self-described evangelicals made up a majority of Republican caucus and primary voters, making their influence on the GOP nomination considerable" [45]. Mike Huckabee’s New York Times interview reminded evangelical Christians that he was one of them and Romney was an outsider. Huckabee knew that many evangelical Christians were likely to support one of their own, rather than taking a chance on another who may not represent them as well. The previously mentioned survey conducted by Vanderbilt University and Claremont Graduate University revealed the importance of brand loyalty in the presidential campaign. “The survey showed that 50 percent of conservative evangelical Christians evaluate a moderate Christian candidate more positively than a conservative Mormon Candidate" [46]. The results indicate that half of the demographic group would prefer religious congruity over political congruity. The emergence of Huckabee and exploitation of evangelical loyalty were devastating to Romney’s presidential hopes.   

C. Brand Positioning. Polls showed evangelical Christians were even less likely to vote for a Mormon than were the general American public [47]. Romney had been carefully positioning himself in a way that would be appealing to evangelical Christians but they were not easily swayed. In an effort to explain his genuine Christian beliefs he said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the Savior of mankind. My Church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths" [48]. He carefully admitted that differences existed between Mormonism and other Christian faiths - but clearly stated that the paramount tenet is the same. His religion speech had used language that would surely resonate with that demographic, yet still they saw him as a non-Christian.

Not all evangelical Christians within the Republican Party were opposed to Mitt Romney; in fact some tried to modify the way Mormons were viewed in an effort to make him more desirable. Richard Land, the leader of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and a very influential Southern Baptist, redefined Mormon categorization by saying, “I think the fairest and most charitable way to define Mormonism would be to call it the fourth Abrahamic religion- Judaism being the first, Christianity being the second, Islam being the third and Mormonism being the fourth" [49]. This statement allowed Land to acknowledge Mormonism as something other than Christian but also place the faith in a category elevated above that of a heretical cult. Although it was impossible to sell Romney as a Christian to the evangelical Christians and fundamentalists, perhaps he could be placed in a more trustworthy category.

The allegation that Mormons are not Christian is based on the assertion that Mormons have a fundamentally different view of Jesus than mainline Christianity. An evangelical writer has described several of these fundamental differences. “Jesus is the only God there is, but Mormons believe in several Gods" [50]. “Jesus was always God but for Mormons He grew into God" [51]. “Jesus is of a different kind than us, but Mormons believe we can become like him" [52]. “Jesus transcends the universe, but Mormons believe in a God that is confined to a physical body" [53]. Evangelical Christians would answer Mormonism’s claim to Christianity by saying that although Mormons have the name of Christ in their church’s name, they believe in a Jesus that is completely different than the rest of mainline Christianity. For this reason it seemed that a speech regarding Romney’s faith would be unavoidable.  

Romney had been advised to give the speech concerning his religious faith more than a year before the date it actually occurred. Prior to officially entering the race, Romney met with Richard Land, and Land declared the speech a necessity [54]. Land had been working on a book on politics in America and had included the John F. Kennedy’s religious speech in his appendix because of its importance. He found the speech to be enormously effective and recognized that Romney would need to give a similar speech because of his strong association with Mormonism. The speech was intended to assuage concerns about his religious faith and position himself as a candidate who shared common patriotism, moral values and, most importantly for evangelical Christians, a belief in Jesus Christ.

D. Brand Equity. Mitt Romney, like Reed Smoot, came to represent more than just himself – he represented Mormonism. The difference between Smoot and Romney is that Romney lives in a society that is generally less concerned with a candidate’s specific religious faith. The country is no longer Protestant and Mormons are no longer outlaws. Romney is also able to walk a path which has been partially cleared by Smoot; his father, George; Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada; and others. Because of them, the equity or perceived value of the Mormon Brand had increased. For example, the fear that Mormon politicians will be controlled by the church president had been largely deflated. A reporter noted that Romney could respond to such a claim by saying, “There is no evidence that church authorities have tried to influence any of these public servants. On the contrary, the church leadership is undoubtedly astute enough to realize -- as Catholic bishops did with President Kennedy -- that any pressure on a Romney White House would only harm the church itself" [55]. Due to the visible public service of multiple Mormons, the American people had a greater idea of what to expect than they did at the beginning of the 20th century. Although Romney received assistance from these fellow church members in some ways, he was left the blaze his own trail into the evangelical Christian camp.           

In order to obtain the Republican Party nomination, Mitt Romney greatly needed the evangelical vote. During the campaign, his brand equity was negatively affected in at least two ways: (1) those not concerned with his Mormon affiliation were nonetheless bombarded by the religious brand rather than his personal brand and (2) a key demographic within his political party was indeed concerned with his particular religious beliefs. Romney became branded as a non-Christian in a political party that generally places great importance on Christian dogma. As a result, the focus was taken away from his qualifications and many of the voters he needed were unwilling to support a Mormon. He spent much of his time answering religious questions, instead of addressing political issues.

At this moment, it seems clear that Mitt Romney is carefully positioning himself for another presidential campaign. Although he has yet to formally announce his intention to run again, he is taking many steps to position himself for such a task. If Romney once again becomes a presidential candidate, he will need to confront the challenges of his previous campaign and reinvent his brand. Such a task will not be easy, but the marketing concept of “Revitalizing the Brand” will provide possible ways of creating a new Romney.

IV. Revitalizing the Brand

The technique of revitalization is employed when a brand has something useful to offer and simply needs to be redirected. Because Mitt Romney has been considered by some experts to be a viable presidential candidate, revitalization can possibly create a brand that will be more appealing to voters. Marketing expert David Aaker has described marketing methods of revitalizing the brand which are applicable. Within that framework are five possible ways in which Romney, or for that matter, any Mormon seeking national office, may be able to create a presidential brand.

1. Increased Usage – This method is used to expand the market. “Instead of trying to get a bigger slice of the pie, it’s usually easier and more rewarding to attempt to make the pie bigger" [56]. Romney may benefit from focusing on demographics other than the ones he chose in his first campaign – particularly the evangelical Christians. He can court independent voters, groups that traditionally do not vote or other segments of the Republican Party.

2. Find New Uses – This method refers to “The detection and exploitation of a new functional use for a brand can rejuvenate a business [or politician] which has been considered a has-been for years" [57]. Romney has successfully convinced many voters of his business prowess and economic understanding, but he may be able to prove his brand is more expansive. A potentially promising area is that of health care. Whether he likes it or not, Romney has been thrust into the national spotlight on the issue of healthcare reform. While serving as the governor of Massachusetts, he signed into law landmark legislation that would provide nearly universal healthcare for the state. An article released after the passage of the national healthcare bill explained his current situation in these terms:

As he promotes himself as a problem-solving pragmatist, Mr. Romney can justifiably point to the landmark universal coverage law in Massachusetts that he, as governor, proposed in 2006. But as he appeals to conservative activists and Republican primary voters, he is trying to draw nuanced distinctions between his Massachusetts law and the federal legislation that shares many of its fundamental elements, including a requirement that people have insurance. [58]

Romney’s task is to convince conservatives that the Massachusetts healthcare reform was a step in the right direction and more acceptable legislation than the national healthcare bill. If he is successful in doing so, his brand will have an additional function. 

3. New Market – The method of entering a new market is used to obtain new customers. “An obvious way to generate growth is to move into a new market area with the potential for new growth" [59]. The recently burgeoning Tea Party may be a field ripe for the picking. The Tea Party is energetic; with some effort, Romney may be able to win a portion of their vote. Another new market that may be lucrative is young voters. Time magazine reported on the success Barack Obama found in this market by referring to the Iowa caucuses, “Turnout among the youngest slice of the electorate more than doubled from 2004, when Howard Dean's intense campaign on college campuses produced far more modest results. This was part of an overall surge in Democratic participation — but while overall Democratic turnout jumped 90%, the number of young Democrats participating soared 135%" [60]. Obama worked for this market by visiting college campuses and even skipping an Iowa forum to attend an Usher concert where he would interact with young voters [61]. The young voter market is often underutilized and Romney may find it a worthwhile focus.  

4. Reposition the Brand [62] – Repositioning is a method used to present a product to consumers in a new way. In the past presidential election, Romney positioned himself as an unflinching politically conservative candidate. The result of that approach has been described this way, “In a nutshell, he made himself too conservative for blue-state Republicans, who opted for McCain, but wasn't conservative enough for red-state conservatives, who opted for Mike Huckabee" [63]. His position isolated him from the support of moderates and came across as inauthentic to many conservatives. Recent commentary has speculated that he is already beginning to position himself as more of a centrist. One article described his recent change in approach this way, “the new Romney is now de-emphasizing social issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and illegal immigration" [64]. He is being careful about who he supports and which movements he associates with [65]. It seems that Romney is trying to reposition himself in a way that allows him to capitalize on voters he missed the first time around.

5. Augmenting the Product – This method is used to add value to an existing product. “When the product is close to becoming a commodity […] consider augmenting it, providing services or features not expected by the customer as they go beyond anything being offered" [66]. Americans have come to expect certain things from politicians and Romney would be wise to defy expectations and look for a way to go beyond what other politicians are doing. He should ask the question, “In what way is the customer [voter] dissatisfied?” [67] An intentional focus on his brand will allow for Romney to better control how he is seen during the next election.

Mitt Romney may also benefit by observing a rising politician in the Republican Party, Jon Huntsman, Jr. A Mormon, as well as former Utah governor and current Ambassador to China, Huntsman appears to be preparing for a run at the presidency in 2012. He also seems to be augmenting the Mormon brand into one that is perceived as secular and inclusive. In a statement which somewhat indicated an absence of devotion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Huntsman stated, “I can’t say I’m overly religious" [68]. At the same time he expressed appreciation for pluralism by saying, “I get satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies" [69]. Whatever his personal convictions may be, this type of rhetoric has been instrumental in shaping the way his brand is viewed. A recent article depicted Romney as the traditional, clean cut Mormon and Huntsman as the unorthodox, wild child distancing himself from his church [70]. Huntsman’s effort at self branding allows him to be seen as a Mormon but not be defined by it. It’s too early to tell but this augmentation may allow Huntsman to avoid some of the religious objections Romney encountered during the last presidential election.          

V. Conclusion

By incorporating some or all of the previously mentioned aspects of revitalizing the brand, Romney will likely be seen more for his personal characteristics and not his religion. Despite the use of branding by sources outside of himself, eventually Reed Smoot was able to create his own brand and successfully “sell” it to his fellow politicians. Romney has the more challenging task of selling his brand to a larger group of people who do not personally interact with him; however, if Romney learns from the success of Smoot and reinvents his brand, he will have a better chance of reaching the White House. 

Author's Email: williamswadley@gmail.com 


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Ball, Molly and Jonathan Martin. “The Mormon Primary: Mitt Romney vs. Jon Huntsman.” Politico, 3 February 2011.

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Bringhurst, Newell and Craig L. Foster. The Mormon Quest for the Presidency. Independence: John Whitmer, 2008.

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Drehle, David Von. “Obama’s Youth Vote Triumph.” Time. http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1700525,00.html (accessed 20 April 2010).

Easton, Nina. “Obama’s (Republican) Man in Beijing.” Fortune, 18 June 2010.

Einstein, Mara. Brands of Faith. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Feldman, Noah. “What is it about Mormonism?.” New York Times, 6 January 2008.

Flake, Kathleen. The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Foster, Craig L. A Different God? Mitt Romney, the Religious Right and the Mormon Question. Salt Lake: Greg Kofford, 2008.

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Merrill, Milton R. Reed Smoot Apostle in Politics. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1990.

Millet, Robert and Gerald R. McDermott. Claiming Christ: A Mormon Evangelical Debate. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007.

Paulos, Michael Harold, ed. The Mormon Church on Trial. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2008. 

Quinn, D. Michael. The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power. Salt Lake: Signature, 1994.

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“Dr. Richard Land on Mitt Romney’s Decision to Give Speech Explaining his Speech,” Foxnews.com. http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,314944,00.html (accessed 19 April 2010). 

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[1] The McLaughlin Group, 19 April 2009 (originally aired the weekend of December 8-9, 2007). [Back to manuscript]

[2] Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are often referred to as Mormons. They have received that nickname because their religious cannon includes The Book of Mormon. The term “the Church” will frequently be used throughout this article as an abbreviation for the full name. The term “Mormonism” will be used to describe the combination of doctrine, culture and lifestyle unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as defined in the Church’s official style guide. [Back to manuscript]

[3] Mara Einstein, Brands of Faith (New York: Routledge, 2008), 70. [Back to manuscript]

[4] David A. Aaker, Managing Brand Equity (New York: The Free Press, 1991), 85.[Back to manuscript]

[5] Quoted in Ibid, 84. [Back to manuscript]

[6] Ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[7] Aaker, 39. [Back to manuscript]

[8] Ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[9] Ibid, 110. [Back to manuscript]

[10] Ibid, 15. [Back to manuscript]

[11] Kathleen Flake, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 34-35. [Back to manuscript]

[12] Milton R. Merrill, Reed Smoot Apostle in Politics (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1990), 12. [Back to manuscript]

[13] Ibid, 28. [Back to manuscript]

[14] Flake, 13. [Back to manuscript]

[15] Merrill, 40. [Back to manuscript]

[16] Quoted in Sarah Barringer Gordon, The Mormon Question (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 98. [Back to manuscript]

[17] Quoted in Gordon. [Back to manuscript]

[18] Quoted in Flake, 14. [Back to manuscript]

[19] Mary Jo Weaver and others, Introduction to Christianity (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1997), 125. [Back to manuscript]

[20] Ibid, 130. [Back to manuscript]

[21] Flake, 17. [Back to manuscript]

[22] Ibid, 18. [Back to manuscript]

[23] Ibid, 14. [Back to manuscript]

[24] D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake: Signature, 1994), 110. [Back to manuscript]

[25] Flake, 7. [Back to manuscript]

[26] Ibid, 79. [Back to manuscript]

[27] Michael Harold Paulos, ed., The Mormon Church on Trial (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2008) 103-104.  [Back to manuscript]

[28] More information can be found in Paulos, 528.  [Back to manuscript]

[29] Ibid, 528. [Back to manuscript]

[30] Flake, 83. [Back to manuscript]

[31] Ibid, 144. [Back to manuscript]

[32] Ibid, 146. [Back to manuscript]

[33] Ibid, 172. [Back to manuscript]

[34] “Faith in America,” Mitt Romney Central, http://mittromneycentral.com/speeches/faith-in-america (accessed 19 April 2010). [Back to manuscript]

[35] For more information on other Mormon presidential candidates see Newell Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster, The Mormon Quest for the Presidency (Independence: John Whitmer, 2008). [Back to manuscript]

[36] Andrew Sullivan, “The Mormon Who Might Just Go All the Way,” Times Online, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/andrew_sullivan/article649895.ece (accessed 20 April 2010). [Back to manuscript]

[37] Craig Foster, A Different God? Mitt Romney, the Religious Right and the Mormon Question (Salt Lake: Greg Kofford, 2008), xiv. [Back to manuscript]

[38] Thomas Burr, “GOP strategists: Impact of Romney's Mormonism exaggerated,” Salt Lake Tribune, 30 November 2006. [Back to manuscript]

[39] “Vanderbilt poll explains why Romney's flip-flopper label sticks; Political scientist says anti-Mormon bias finds cover,” Vanderbilt University, http://news.vanderbilt.edu/2008/01/vanderbilt-poll-explains-why-romneys-flip-flopper-label-sticks-political-scientist-says-anti-mormon-bias-finds-cover-58319/ (accessed 19 April 2010). [Back to manuscript]

[40] Noah Feldman, “What is it about Mormonism?” New York Times, 6 January 2008. [Back to manuscript]

[41] Quoted in Zev Chafetz, “The Huckabee Factor,” New York Times Magazine, 16 December 2007, 70. [Back to manuscript]

[42] Quoted in Ibid, 70. [Back to manuscript]

[43] Quoted in “Clinton and Obama Neck and Neck in New Hampshire; President Bush Wins on Iraq, Again; Interview With Mike Huckabee,” CNN.Com. http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0712/12/sitroom.02.html (accessed 19 April 2010). [Back to manuscript]

[44] Bringhurst and Foster, 249. [Back to manuscript]

[45] Ibid, 249. [Back to manuscript]

[46] "Vanderbilt poll." [Back to manuscript]

[47] Foster, 150. [Back to manuscript]

[48] "Faith in America Speech." [Back to manuscript]

[49] David Van Biema, “What is Mormonism? A Baptist Answer,” Time Magazine, http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1675308,00.html (accessed 5 December 2009). [Back to manuscript]

[50] Robert Millet and Gerald R. McDermott, Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 69. [Back to manuscript]

[51] Ibid, 70. [Back to manuscript]

[52] Ibid, 72. [Back to manuscript]

[53] Ibid, 75. [Back to manuscript]

[54] “Dr. Richard Land on Mitt Romney’s Decision to Give Speech Explaining his Faith,” Foxnews.com. http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,314944,00.html (accessed 19 April 2010).  [Back to manuscript]

[55] Kenneth Woodward, “The Presidency’s Mormon Moment” New York Times, 9 April 2007. [Back to manuscript]

[56] Aaker, 243. [Back to manuscript]

[57] Ibid, 247. [Back to manuscript]

[58] Kevin Sack, “Mitt Romney on Healthcare: A Particular Spin,” New York Times, 9 April 2010. [Back to manuscript]

[59] Aaker, 248. [Back to manuscript]

[60] David Von Drehle, “Obama’s Youth Vote Triumph,” Time, http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1700525,00.html (accessed 20 April 2010). [Back to manuscript]

[61] Von Drehle. [Back to manuscript]

[62] A detailed description of how to reposition the brand can be found in Aaker, 251-253. [Back to manuscript]

[63] David S. Bernstein, “New and Improved Romney,” Boston Phoenix, 12 February 2010. [Back to manuscript]

[64] Bernstein. [Back to manuscript]

[65] Ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[66] Aaker, 254. [Back to manuscript]

[67] Ibid, 255. [Back to manuscript]

[68] Quoted in Nina Easton, “Obama’s (Republican) Man in Beijing” Fortune, 18 June 2010. [Back to manuscript]

[69] Ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[70] Molly Ball and Jonathan Martin, “The Mormon Primary: Mitt Romney vs. Jon Huntsman” Politico, 3 February 2011. [Back to manuscript]


Full Citation for This Article: Swadley, William Jr. (2011) "The Branding of 'Mormon' Politicians and Its Consequences: An Historical Analysis," SquareTwo, Vol. 4 No. 1 (Spring), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleSwadleyBranding.html, accessed [give access date].

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