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Why’s Romney So Good at Fundraising? Mormonism

Like a lot of liberals, I’m skeptical of the idea that successful businessmen are likely to become successful presidents by virtue of their business experience alone. 

But there is one way in which business success seems very likely to benefit a future president: fundraising. It’s not just that the businessman knows a lot of affluent people whom he can tap for money, though that helps. And it’s not just that the former businessman is steeped in the social mores of businesspeople, making him deft at rubbing elbows with those he doesn’t know. It’s that he’s likely to be very skilled in the mechanics of convincing people—even perfect strangers—to give him money, since that’s a huge part of the entrepreneurial game. 

It certainly was for Romney, who raised billions of dollars from investors during his 15 years running Bain Capital. As the Times reports today, that skill—and it really is a skill—has paid enormous dividends for Romney as a candidate. To take one example:

There are daily and weekly conference calls, many featuring senior campaign members who offer updates [to donors] on strategy and policy, and a software system that encourages friendly competition by allowing donors to monitor giving from friends whom they recruited. Several supporters recalled receiving all-hours phone calls and e-mails from Spencer Zwick, Mr. Romney’s fund-raising chief, who has a 24-hour rule: all messages are returned within a day. 

Or another:

Mr. Romney has repeatedly invited top-flight donors to his home on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire for intimate gatherings where he serves cookies baked by his wife, Ann ...
Mr. Scaramucci said he relished his time at Mr. Romney’s house in New Hampshire, where the candidate gave a slide show about campaign strategy and spoke with guests on a deck overlooking the lake. “People love being able to say they went to Romney’s house,” Mr. Scaramucci said. “It’s an attractive magnetron for the campaign.” 

The Obama campaign is obviously no slouch when it comes to fundraising mechanics—they (and the Bush campaign) were basically the gold standard prior to this election. But the priority that Romney Inc. places on cultivating donors, as well as the candidate’s personal involvement, seems pretty unprecedented and clearly emanates from Romney himself. 

Having said all that, I’d argue that the relevant portions of Romney’s background here include more than just his business experience. After all, Romney was actually a fantastic fundraiser long before he entered the business world. Consider this from a great Washington Post piece about his undergraduate days at BYU:

On Page 379 in the 1971 school yearbook, Romney, wearing blazer, tie and slacks, is identified as club president as he kneels with other members in front of a pond on a farm outside Provo. The opposite page reads: “What student group would accept the challenge to raise $100,000 in twelve months’ time? Cougar Club did without hesitation.” …
In addition to the traditional sale of chrysanthemums for homecoming and pushing records of BYU fight songs and tickets to football games, Romney “did things in Cougar Club that had never been done before,” according to Clint Hunter, a junior member of the club. “Mitt had much grander concepts of how you raise money.” …
“…He said, ‘What if we can get the school administration to share with us the contact information of everybody who has ever matriculated through the school.’ And we set up phone banks and got the students to make these calls as volunteers.”
Romney also worked out a deal with a local car dealership so that the Cougar Men, along with their wives or girlfriends, would pick up prospective donors in new, polished cars for a spring day of activities and presentations. 

Now some of this savvy was just in the ether around the Romney household circa 1960, given that George was a highly successful businessman himself. But surely a certain amount of it flows from Romney’s Mormonism, too. Like successful fundraising, evangelizing requires endless conversations with strangers. The fundraiser, like the evangelizer, must speak without embarrassment about subjects that are normally cause for much embarrassment, and must ultimately persuade the stranger to entrust him with something of great importance (money in the first instance, their eternal soul in the second). Both pursuits are highly transactional and empirical—you have to officially be baptized into the Mormon faith, a kind of religious analog to signing on a dotted line, and Mormon missions keep close tabs on the numbers of converts they’re attracting. Both activities involve lots of rejection and require incredible resourcefulness and on-the-fly learning. I described a bit of this in a piece about Mormon evangelizing several years back: 

Arguably the most important skill they acquire in this regard is how to get in the door, and the [missionary] 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." … 
[T]here is a strong, if crude, element of demographic targeting involved. Certain neighborhoods develop reputations for being more or less hospitable to proselytizing. In one missionary's recollection, lapsed Catholics tended to be more receptive than lapsed Protestants, because the latter often still belong to a community of coreligionists even if they aren't especially observant. …
[O]ne of the former missionaries recalls being encouraged to shovel snow from people's driveways as a way to make a good impression. 


In Romney’s case, I’d say it was both the general culture of entrepreneurialism that Mormons are steeped in, and his own particular experience trying to save souls in France (possibly the least hospitable place on the planet for such an undertaking), that gave him such a leg up in his future salesmanship. 

And so while it’s no doubt true that Romney’s business background helped turn him into a remarkable fundraiser, it’s probably more accurate to say that Romney’s Mormonism made him more successful at both. 

Follow me on twitter: @noamscheiber