(CBS News) The conventional wisdom is that Mitt Romney's Mormon faith has complicated his efforts to win the Republican presidential nomination and, eventually, the presidency.
But according to a new study by the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, Romney's religion may actually be more of an asset than a liability.
The former Massachusetts governor will be the nation's first major party nominee who is Mormon when he formally clinches the nomination this summer. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) is a relatively new religion, and one many Americans know little about.
Aof during the GOP nominating process prompted questions over whether anti-Mormon bigotry would cause Romney to lose votes. In addition, several polls have suggested a bias against Mormon candidates. A November 2011 study from the Pew Research Center survey showed that 25 percent of American voters would be less likely to support a Mormon candidate, a number that was even higher among white evangelical Christians.
According to a June 2011 Gallup poll, 22 percent of Americans said they would not vote for a nominee who was Mormon. The Gallup poll showed that the bias was much stronger against atheists and gays, however: 49 percent of Americans said they would not vote for an atheist and 32 percent of Americans said they would not vote for a gay nominee.
In examining the impact of Romney's religion, Michael Henderson and Matthew Chingos, the authors of the Brookings study, provided voters with varying levels of information about Mormonism and then measured the impact of that information on their political opinions. Each respondent was asked to answer questions about Romney after reviewing biographical details about him, some of which offered detailed information about the Mormon faith, some of which offered less information, and some of which did not address his religion.
They found there was little evidence that any of the information provided about Romney's religion had "more than a trivial effect" on his presidential prospects.
"Respondents in general - and white evangelicals in particular - were just as likely to support Romney regardless of what they were told about Romney's religion," the study reports. "In short, white evangelical voters do not abandon Romney even when differences between their beliefs and his are emphasized. Thus it appears that the concerns among campaign watchers about Romney's religion are misplaced."
Among white evangelicals, 48 percent of those who were giving prompts either identifying Romney as Mormon or emphasizing Mormon-Christian differences expressed support for the candidate. Among those who were given no information about Romney's religion, 49 percent supported him. Forty-four percent of white evangelicals who were given prompts emphasizing Mormon-Christian similarities supported him.
Among all conservatives, identifying Romney as a Mormon actually gave him a boost. Fifty-four percent of conservatives who were not given any information about Romney's religion said they supported him. Of those who received prompts in which he was identified as Mormon, 73 percent did.
Sixty-seven percent of those who received information emphasizing Mormon-Christian differences backed Romney, as did 68 percent of those given prompts emphasizing Mormon-Christian similarities.
Romney has not talked at length about his religion to the American people. But according to Mormon scholar Dave Ulrich, Romney could communicate a lot to voters by speaking about his faith.
"Even after numerous political victories, years of public scrutiny and gigabytes of press, Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney remains an enigma to many," Ulrich writes in a Washington Post series exploring Romney's relationship with faith. "Is he a brilliant businessman or a ruthless capitalist? Is he driven by family values or by personal ambition? Is he a political moderate or a right-wing conservative? Just what kind of leader is he likely to be?"
"But fully unraveling Romney's leadership identity requires delving more deeply into how he demonstrated leadership in his church," Ulrich argues.