A Mormon Mission... For Romney?

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney speaks to the delegates Saturday, May 19, 2007, at the Republican Party State Convention in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain)[
AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain
This column was written by Noam Scheiber.

It took the political pros a year to decide that Mitt Romney's religion would be a disaster for his presidential prospects. It took them all of two days to revise that view. On April 1, the Romney campaign announced it had raised $21 million in the first quarter of 2007, a spectacular sum for any Republican candidate, much less an obscure Northeastern governor. By midweek, the press was chalking it up to the power of Romney's Mormon connections. "Residents of Utah, the center of the Mormon Church, contributed about 15 percent of the total contributions, more per capita than any other state," observed The New York Times. The lead to a Washington Post story slobbered over a two-day trip through Mormon enclaves that netted the governor more than $1 million.

There's no question that the enthusiasm of affluent Mormons is a huge boost for Romney. The former Massachusetts governor could not have solidified his first-tier status without his impressive fund-raising haul, and the haul would not have happened without his Mormon base. But as the Romney campaign never hesitates to point out, this kind of advantage is hardly unheard of in presidential politics. Michael Dukakis tapped the wallets of affluent Greek-Americans in 1988; Joe Lieberman benefited from outsize Jewish donations in 2004.

Romney's Mormonism does, however, confer at least one truly unprecedented advantage — one that could be decisive in a closely contested primary. It derives from an aspect of the Mormon community that the press has largely underplayed: the vast grassroots organizing potential of thousands of highly-disciplined young missionaries.

The recent history of presidential primaries has not been kind to campaigns that are overly dependent on youthful energy. Most notoriously, Howard Dean spent hundreds of thousands of dollars bringing 3,500 volunteers to Iowa from across the country — the so-called "Perfect Storm" — then proceeded to finish a distant third in the state's caucuses. Many on-the-ground observers speculated that the brightly-dyed hair and copious body piercings of Dean's Perfect Storm-ers might have alienated average Iowans. But even if that weren't the case, the Dean campaign was clearly ill-served by its activists' incompetence. Months before the voting, according to an account in The Atlantic, campaign manager Joe Trippi complained to colleagues that, "You need a person running each county who is in that county, no matter how small it is. ... This campaign has a bunch of kids in regional headquarters that never go out into the counties."

If, by contrast, Romney decides to engineer his own perfect storm, the young volunteers will almost certainly be clean-cut, God-fearing, respectful of authority ... and extremely well-versed in the art of grassroots persuasion. Although the Mormon Church has no formal connection to the Romney campaign (for that matter, it has an explicit policy of avoiding political activity), the two-year mission Mormons undertake after high school turns out to be unusually good training for political field work.

The Mormon Church is somewhat vague with the details of missions, so I've relied on two Mormon sources to get a sense of how the process works. (Some of the particulars may have changed since they served in the 1990s, but the broad thrust should be the same.) The typical mission begins with a three-week training course at the aptly named Mission Training Center in Provo, Utah. There, the Mormons receive a crash course on the missionary lifestyle and the rudiments of spreading the good word.

Arguably the most important skill they acquire in this regard is how to get in the door, and the trainees hone this skill through extensive role-playing. For example, they are taught to search for common ground with potential converts — everything from their taste in cars or pets to their religious worldview. "Take the belief in Jesus Christ," says one of the former missionaries. "We might have different beliefs about Him, but most people do believe in some sort of Supreme Being, they have ideas about that. You build on that, go from there." It's not so different from the way a canvasser might seek a connection with a voter over, say, a shared interest in the environment.

There are roughly 100 regional missions in the United States (out of about 340 worldwide), each of which is divided into several zones of about 20 missionaries, with each zone subdivided into three or four districts. Upon arriving at his or her mission, a young Mormon will meet with the mission president — usually a respected member of the Mormon community called to serve a three-year term — who assigns the missionary to a district. Once there, he or she will be paired with a more experienced partner — called a "companion" — who functions as an on-the-job trainer.