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It's not about voting, it's about values

Mitt Romney is an alumnus of Brigham Young University. But present-day students are not too excited about politics. Richard Quest writes.

india Updated: Oct 23, 2012 21:26 IST

In Provo, Utah, ringed by mountains and desert, sits Brigham Young University (BYU) - founded and funded by the Church of the Latter Day Saints. Mitt Romney graduated from here. If Salt Lake City's Mormon Tabernacle is the faith's spiritual heart, this is its seat of learning - the hot house of its future elite.

The campus is as spectacular as it is pristine, with imposing mountains standing over its manicured lawns and autumnal trees. Like many of America's colleges, the facilities are superb: a 64,000 capacity football stadium, a basketball arena that fits another 22,000, a vast library sunk beneath the campus's central square, and an art gallery that would grace many small cities.

Thirty thousand students are here, 98% of which are Mormon. Aside from noticing how these days, rather like policemen, students are looking a lot younger, I was struck by a sort of wholesome uniformity. A clue to this lay in a poster outside the campus bowling alley: 'We follow the Honour Code' it said, asking its visitors to 'uphold standards of grooming and dress'. Surely they have the rest of their lives to worry about that? Rebellion, non-conformity and experimentation - the staples of many university careers elsewhere, don't figure prominently on the BYU menu. The atmosphere was abundantly friendly, welcoming, and above all, very sensible. Everyone looked like they were trying hard to be a grown-up.

One of the reasons we had left our Amtrak train in Provo was to gauge opinions on the election. Would these young Mormons all favour Romney? Would we even find any Democrats? The answers were not entirely what we'd expected. It's not about voting for a Mormon, most said. For the majority we chatted to here, it's about values. They were adamant that they're not automatically voting for Romney - although the fact that he hasn't bothered to campaign in Utah tells you how secure this state is. If the man in the Oval Office shares their values, they'll back him. You could argue that the fact Romney is an alumnus of their college and a member of their church amounts to the same thing of course. On the whole you would be right.

We did manage to find some exceptions though. The Democratic society at BYU has around 250 active members; its president claims he would be proud to see a Mormon elected, just not this one. He doesn't see how Romney's policies can deliver the kind of caring, inclusive society he wants. He doesn't want to see his religion's stance on issues such as same sex marriage and birth control imposed on all whether they like it or not. Interestingly, he doesn't see that as betraying his faith. Mormonism is not, he contended, about dictating to others, or assimilating them.

Aside from an almost complete absence of subculture, the abiding impression we took from BYU was the student body's lukewarm response to politics. It was the night of the second presidential debate, and after Romney's rout of Obama in the first, followed by the acrimony of the Ryan versus Biden encounter, we thought this next bout would be hotly anticipated by all these first-time voters. A few Democrats were gathering in a dorm room to watch. The Republicans had no specific plans. Some didn't even know it was on. Where was the fire in their hearts? Who here wanted to change the world? Was there really nothing for these students to rage against?

From our hotel we wandered out looking for a place to watch the debate, but no restaurants appeared to be showing it. Being a predominantly Mormon town, bars were thin on the ground. We ended up gathering in my hotel room.

That night we boarded the train again, with the feeling that we were leaving something of a bubble behind us. Provo's well-funded, immaculately presented, friendly university had made us feel entirely welcome, and I'd genuinely enjoyed meeting the people here. It was certainly a pleasant place to visit; I'm just not sure all of America's electorate would want to live there.

Richard Quest is a CNN correspondent based in London and host of the weekday one-hour programme 'Quest Means Business'

The views expressed by the author are personal