SALT LAKE CITY — The perception of Mormons in the U.S. changed very little even though the religion received unprecedented attention this year with Republican Mitt Romney running for president.
A new Pew Research Center poll found that 8 in 10 people said they learned little or nothing about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during the 2012 presidential election. And fewer than half of Americans still don't know key facts about the history of the Mormon church.
There does, however, appear to be a warming in feelings toward individuals in the church, which has about 6 million members in the U.S. and 14 million worldwide.
The survey found that nearly a quarter of Americans now use positive terms to describe Mormons as "good people," ''dedicated" and "hardworking," whereas last year it was 18 percent.
The data also shows, however, that "cult" remained far and away the most common one-word description of the church.
Respondents were less slightly likely to consider the Mormon religion as very different from their own beliefs. This year 61 percent of Americans found the church significantly different, down from 65 percent a year ago.
The religion was thrust into the national spotlight with Romney being the first Mormon nominated for the nation's highest office. The church also launched a national advertising campaign this year featuring stories of church members in an effort to improve perceptions.
LDS spokesman Michael Purdy said Monday the church is happy to see an increase in favorable feelings toward its members.
"We have long maintained that when people learn about each other, misinformation and misperception are replaced with facts," Purdy said in a statement. "That is always a good thing. We look forward to this trend continuing."
The news media produced about twice as many religion-related stories about Romney as they did about Obama, a previous Pew Research Center report found.
That may be why Romney's faith became apparent to most Americans as election coverage ratcheted up throughout the year. The number of adults who knew Romney was Mormon rose from slightly less than 4 in 10 last year to more than 6 in 10 after the election.
The Pew survey was done in early December among 1,500 adults.
Mormons appear to have made more strides with Republican-leaning voters than Democrats. About 35 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents reported a positive image of Mormons — up from 23 percent in November 2011.
Among Democrats, that percentage only went up slightly to 18 percent from 15 percent.
The rise in favorable opinion about Mormons is most likely a result of Romney's political campaign, which cast him as a poster child for good Mormons with "strong family values," said Armand Mauss, a retired professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at Washington State University. The Mormon church's advertising campaign probably had less to do with the gains, he said.
He was skeptical of whether the changes would last since the "increase in favorability among Republicans and Romney supporters" is influenced by political preference and therefore "not likely to endure."