The Obama campaign and mainstream media are using "dog-whistles" to draw attention to and suspicion of Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, while attempting to maintain plausible deniability that any such attack is underway.
The term "dog-whistle" is used to describe coded attacks that targeted audiences may understand, but outsiders might not recognize.
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The Democrats’ effort began in August of last year—well before Romney officially locked up the Republican nomination—when Politico reported on the Obama campaign’s prospective plan to "kill" Romney with negative attacks emphasizing his "weirdness factor."
Several commentators noted at the time that the term "weird," used repeatedly by the Obama advisers interviewed for the Politico story, might have been an implicit attack on Romney’s Mormon faith.
"Calling Romney ‘weird’ sounds like code for ‘Mormon,’" read one Atlantic Wire headline. Megan Carpentier, executive editor of the Raw Story, wrote: "Efforts by Obama to portray Romney as ‘weird’ are dog-whistles to anti-Mormon sentiment."
Though the Obama campaign has said it does not intend to make Romney’s religion an issue in the race, campaign officials have on several occasions hinted at the "weirdness" of the Mormon Church.
Senior campaign adviser David Axelrod, for example, composed a bizarre tweet earlier this year, which he later deleted.
"Wring URS. This is the Medicare story," Axelrod wrote in March, along with a link to a Salt Lake Tribune story titled: "Menstruating Mormons barred from temple proxy baptisms?"
Axelrod sent out a "proper link to [the] Medicare story" about an hour later, but never explained why he published the initial tweet linking to a story about menstruating Mormons.
Axelrod has recently embraced a more mainstream form of the anti-Mormon dog whistle, attacking Romney over his alleged "secrecy."
This theme has been promulgated by the campaign’s sympathizers in the media, who have implied that Romney is indeed hiding something by not being more forthcoming about his faith and experience as a leader in the Mormon Church.
Politico published an article on Tuesday titled "The Hidden Mitt Romney," which noted that the candidate’s faith had been largely "walled off" from public discussion.
Columnist David Brooks lamented that Romney could not discuss his "amazing personal story … because it involves Mormonism."
"For some reason, he’s not willing to talk about it," Brooks said on NBC’s Meet the Press. "He’s a hidden man."
The Obama campaign, meanwhile, has sought to popularize the Twitter hashtag #WhatsMittHiding. Intended to highlight Romney’s unwillingness to release more than two years of personal tax returns, some say Obama is pushing this attack because Romney’s filings will reveal the depth of his commitment to Mormonism.
In a John Heilemann piece in New York Magazine, "The Hidden Mitt: Why does Mitt Romney have such a hard time talking about what matters most to him?" the author speculated that Romney’s unwillingness to release more tax returns could stem from his reluctance to publicize "the extent of his donations to his church."
"In this case and all others, charitable donations are something to be proud of, an entirely honorable thing," Heilemann wrote. "But for a candidate who has taken extravagant pains to avoid discussion of his supremely prominent role in contemporary Mormonism, the idea of a wave of news stories detailing the tens of millions of dollars that he has given to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—surely making him among its most generous funders in the modern era—must be a kind of nightmare."
Romney and his wife Ann donated more than $7 million (about 16 percent of their total income) to charities, including more than $4 million to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, between 2010 and 2011.
Romney dismissed the idea that he was reluctant to discuss his faith in an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams on Wednesday.
"I'm very proud of my heritage. I'm a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I'm proud of that," Romney said. "I'll talk about my experiences in the church. There's no question they've helped shape my perspective."
Some members of the media have been far less subtle in their assessments of Romney’s faith.
MSNBC anchor Lawrence O’Donnell unleashed a vicious tirade against Mormonism in April, claiming the religion "was created by a guy in upstate New York in 1830 when he got caught having sex with the maid and explained to his wife that God told him to do it."
"Forty-eight wives later, Joseph Smith’s lifestyle was completely sanctified in the religion that he invented to go with it, which Mitt Romney says he believes," O’Donnell said.
He later apologized.
Others have attempted to demean traditional Mormon temple garments by referring to them as "magic underwear."
New York Times columnist Charles Blow, in response to a comment Romney made about single parents in a debate earlier this year, tweeted: "Let me just tell you this Mitt ‘Muddle Mouth’: I’m a single parent and my kids are *amazing*! Stick that in your magic underwear."
Blow also apologized for his "inappropriate" comment.
Shortly before Romney clinched the GOP nomination in May, the Washington Post ran a peculiar story about a "massacre" carried out by a Mormon militia in Arkansas in 1857 under the headline: "Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith tangles with a quirk of Arkansas history."
Earlier this month, Businessweek published a controversial cover story titled "How the Mormons Make Money." The actual cover featured Jesus Christ giving financial advice to Mormon missionaries under the banner "Inside the Mormon Empire."
Michael Cromartie, Vice President at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said this was an example of "unnecessarily insulting" news coverage regarding Mormonism.
"I suspect we’ll be seeing more of this," he added.
Some of the most vitriolic anti-Mormon rhetoric has come from Obama mega-donor and alleged comedian Bill Maher.
"This is a religion that is so stupid that Tom Cruise would not join it," Maher said of Mormonism in May.
Maher also tweeted that Romney’s entire foreign policy experience consisted of "trying to brow-beat Frenchmen into joining his cult," a reference to the two years Romney spent in France as a Mormon missionary.
Maher has donated at least $1 million to the pro-Obama Super PAC Priorities USA.
However, while the Obama campaign has seemed to content to allow its surrogates to go after Romney and Mormonism, the president himself has steered clear of the issue.
"I think Obama is rightly avoiding it as an issue," said Dr. Matthew Bowman, a professor of religion at Hampden-Sydney College. "It doesn’t play well in American politics to be intolerant of religion."
Cromartie said members of the mainstream media are most likely to try to make Romney’s religion a factor in the race, potentially as Election Day draws nearer.
"Closer to the convention, there may well be some people in the mainstream media who will want to do an hour special on the history of Mormonism," he said. "If things were more comfortable in the country and with the economy, Romney’s critics might have the luxury to discuss what might be considered the oddities of the Mormon faith."
Recent polling suggests most voters do not find Romney’s religion off-putting. A survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released Thursday found "little voter discomfort" with Mormonism. More than 80 percent of voters who are aware that Romney is a Mormon said they are either comfortable with his religion or that it does not matter to them.
A recent Gallup poll found that 18 percent of registered voters would not support a Mormon candidate, compared to 80 percent who would, a result essentially unchanged from polls taken in 1967, when Romney’s father ran for president.
Negativity toward a Mormon candidate was most pronounced among Democrats (24 percent) and those who did not attend college (23 percent).