The New Swing Voters - HBO-Watching Evangelicals?

The press asks the all-important question: Can a Mormon be elected president in an age when a TV series about polygamy follows "The Sopranos" in HBO's Sunday lineup?

Bostonians are not to be blamed if they failed to read beyond the following lede in Tuesday’s Boston Herald:

“Mitt Romney doesn’t watch much TV, but a new HBO series called ‘Big Love’ might hurt his ratings as he promotes his presidential road show, pundits say.”

So for any Herald reader who couldn’t make it past the double whammy — bad word play and an attribution to “pundits say” — allow us to summarize for you exactly what “pundits” are saying about this, the latest twist on the question of Can Mitt Romney, a Mormon, be elected president: specifically, Can Mitt Romney, a Mormon, be elected president in an age when the “polygamist series” “Big Love” follows “The Sopranos” in HBO’s Sunday lineup?

Complicates matters, doesn’t it?

Cue the pundits.

Here is what “Boston University professor and Romney watcher Julian Zelizer” told the Boston Herald’s Kimberly Atkins: “If [‘Big Love’] becomes the next ‘Sopranos,’ it’s not good [for Romney]. Many of the challenges he faces with Mormonism is the mystery surrounding what it is. If (the show) is how people form opinions about it, it could be a problem.” (To which we would add, if a fictional HBO drama is how people form opinions about, well, anything, it could be a problem.)

Did Atkins’ other “pundits” have anything more convincing to say? “‘Many evangelicals label the Latter-Day Saints as a cult,’ said John Green, professor of religion and politics at the University of Akron’s Bliss Institute of Applied Politics,” Atkins reports. “Noting evangelicals’ sizable clout in GOP circles, Green said, ‘This could create a problem for [Romney].’” Well, yes, that could be a problem — whether or not those well-known influentials, HBO-addicted evangelicals, hang around for “Big Love” after their weekly dose of “The Sopranos.”

So far, this is not exactly thesis-supporting punditry.

Did the Boston Globe fare any better when it considered the same premise three days earlier?

Reported the Globe’s Susan Ryan: “… some are questioning whether a television show that confuses viewers about the nature of a religion could affect a presidential campaign. They suggest that if the [‘Big Love’] catches on, Governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon, could be hurt.”

The “some” Ryan cites turns out to be “Alan Wolfe, a professor of political science at Boston College and author of ‘The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Practice Our Faith.’” Wolfe tells Ryan, “This can’t help Romney.” But the other talking head tapped by Ryan refused to play along. “Ralph Whitehead Jr., who teaches press and politics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, predicts minimal damage,” writes Ryan. “‘I don’t see people making a connection between Romney and some generic cult,’ [Whitehead said].”

Undeterred, Ryan even asked the producers of “Big Love” whether they thought their show “demonize[s] Mormonism” and whether it might “influence a presidential campaign,” and then reported producer Mark Olsen’s response thusly:

“‘It’s a TV show,’ says Olsen in an exasperated voice.”

Forgive Olsen. As a man who has no trouble at all distinguishing between image and reality, he apparently is unfamiliar with the folkways and byways of campaign reporting.

But we’re with him. If you can’t find “pundits” who can provide sound bytes in support of your premise — not exactly a tough task at a time when self-defined “experts” materialize any time a reporter with a notebook arrives on the scene — perhaps that’s your cue to reconsider the premise.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.