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Romney's Army

Missionary work trains Mormons to stump for Mitt

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 mid-week, 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, then, 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. Most missionaries work twelve hours a day, six and a half days a week. They live on small stipends, in Spartan quarters--secondhand furniture, no TVs or computers--and dine on such extravagances as cereal and peanut butter. The Church allows them to call home exactly twice a year: on Christmas and Mother's Day. Rejection is overwhelmingly the most common feature of their existence.

Like any well-functioning campaign organization, information moves easily both up and down the hierarchy, as well as laterally from missionary to missionary. The young Mormons attend monthly meetings with zone leaders and mission officials. They use the occasion to air frustrations, whether practical or spiritual, and to share what might be called best practices. For example, one of the former missionaries recalls being encouraged to shovel snow from people's driveways as a way to make a good impression. The other remembers getting a tip on how to respond to people reluctant to be baptized as Mormons because they'd already been baptized into another faith.

Veterans of early primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire often speak in the obscure shorthand of "ones," "twos," and "threes." Ones refer to the voters who are solidly with your candidate. Twos are people who are either leaning that way or are altogether undecided. Threes are people who support your opponent. The job of the organizer is to convert all the twos to ones and to keep the ones from backsliding. The total number of ones at any given time is known as the campaign's "hard count." (Tellingly, Trippi constantly complained that the Dean campaign lacked a meaningful hard count.)

It turns out that Mormon proselytizing is remarkably similar to corralling voters in this respect. In effect, the missionary's universe also consists of ones (the people firmly on track to be baptized as Mormons, known as the "baptizing pool"), twos (people open to converting but who haven't entirely made up their minds, called the "teaching pool"), and threes (people who slam doors in their faces--i.e., the vast majority). As in politics, the twos receive the most attention. The Mormon technique for winning over metaphysical undecideds involves asking a person to make a series of gradually escalating commitments. After the first encounter, the missionary might ask them to read a passage in the Book of Mormon and pray about it. Over time, the missionary will petition the prospect to abstain from cigarettes, alcohol, and out-of-wedlock sex. (The canvasser, by contrast, will usually settle for convincing someone to display a yard sign.)

The missionaries are technically supposed to "let the spirit guide them" when deciding whom to approach, and divine inspiration is no doubt an important feature of the process. But, as with political organizing, there 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. Perhaps least surprisingly, the poor tend to be more receptive to Mormon overtures than the middle class, who are in turn more receptive than the rich. "People don't experience religious conversions when they're fat and happy," says one of the former missionaries. Nor, for that matter, do they schlep to a caucus meeting on a frigid Iowa evening.

And, of course, the hard count always looms large, as do the psychic rewards awaiting those who boost it. "We had a monthly newsletter that showed everyone who had been baptized and the missionaries that had been working with them," recalls one of the missionaries. "People knew who was being successful and who wasn't. There was a certain admiration [for the high-achievers], since that was the whole point of us being there."

In his account of Dean's Iowa implosion in 2004, my colleague Ryan Lizza described a conversation he'd had the night before the caucuses with a Deaniac named Larry. Ryan asked Larry about his assignment for the following day. Larry couldn't say what it was, but he did know what he wouldn't be doing. "It's too damn cold to canvass," he opined. Somehow, I don't see Romney's Iowa volunteers being as easily discouraged.