Throughout most of American history, the major parties’ presidential nominees have been belonged to mainline Protestant denominations. Only two Catholics – Al Smith in 1928 and John F. Kennedy in 1960 – and one Greek Orthodox – Michael Dukakis in 1988 – have won their party’s nomination. This year marks the first time a major political party has nominated a Mormon candidate, Mitt Romney.
Opinion polls conducted prior to 2012 suggest that the average American is unfamiliar with Mormons and the Mormon religion. Last November, 50% of the adults surveyed by the Pew Research Center said that they did not personally know any Mormons, and 49% said they knew “nothing at all” or “not very much” about the Mormon religion.
Indeed, the fact that Romney himself is Mormon has only gradually seeped into the public’s consciousness during the past year. Last November, only 39% of the public could correctly identify Mitt Romney’s religious affiliation as Mormon. By the end of June, this number rose to 51%.
One interesting feature of the Romney candidacy is that it seems to be piquing voters’ curiosity about Mormons. Consider, for example, the frequency with which the search term “Mormon” is plugged into the Google search engine. Using Google Trends, we plotted the volume of weekly searches in the United States for the terms “Mormon” and “Romney” from 2004 to the present. Searches for “Mormon” or “Romney” remained relatively constant from 2004 to 2007. In late 2007 and early 2008, Romney campaigned in the GOP presidential primary, and both search terms enjoyed a brief upward bump. When Romney dropped out of the race in early 2008, the use of these search terms subsided and remained flat until 2011. When Romney declared his current bid for the presidency in June of 2011, searches for “Mormon” soared and remained high as he won the battle for nomination in the first half of 2012. As we enter the fall of 2012, searches for “Mormon” have reached at an all-time high. The search term is currently five times more popular than it was in 2010.
The bottom line is that politics plays a pedagogic function. It is sometimes quipped that foreign policy crises cause Americans to become acquainted with world geography. In much the same vein, the nomination of a presidential candidate with a Mormon religious background has prompted vast numbers of Americans to seek out information about this religion and its adherents.
 One feature of the data from Google Trends is that the volume of searches is given in relative terms as scaled by Google. The scaled volume ranges between 0 and 100 with 100 representing the highest amount of search volume. The other values reflect the search volume relative to that high-water mark. The scale used here is relative to searches for “Republican.”