Say what you will about Mitt Romney: the man knows how to make money.
That was underscored Monday when Romney's presidential exploratory committee raised $10.25 million in one eight-hour block, an astounding sum that makes the fundraising results of his primary rivals look like change in a piggy bank. ( Tim Pawlenty, for example, topped his campaign's fundraising record when he raised $800,000 last week.)
It shouldn't surprise anyone that Romney has built such a behemoth of a fundraising machine. A former private equity investor who made a name for himself as a corporate turnaround artist, Romney has surrounded himself with sharp money minds—like his national finance chair Spencer Zwick—who have made an art out of persuading supporters to open their wallets.
In fact, given Romney's failed 2008 bid for the Republican nomination, in which he raised more than $60 million and spent an additional $45 million of his own money, it would be fair to say the former Massachusetts governor has proven more adept at collecting checks than votes. All of which raises the question, how much does Monday's impressive figure really matter?
Romney supporters say it should—and not just because the funds will allow him to air more commercials than his competitors. In an election that will revolve around economic issues, his fans argue that fundraising prowess is an indicator of economic know-how. If the federal government should be run like a business, as fiscal conservatives often posit, then give the keys to the guy at the helm of a financially thriving presidential campaign. (It's worth noting that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton used a version of this rationale in 2008 to fend off Romney's criticism that they didn't have any executive experience.)
So, how did Romney & Co. hit the $10 million jackpot in Las Vegas on Monday? With a shrewd event that had all the hallmarks of a Harvard Business School case study.
In an enormous Las Vegas Convention Center ballroom—"the size of two football fields," more than one Romney staffer pointed out—about 800 supporters sat at tables clustered according to their region of the country, and worked their way through a list of phone numbers. Of course, Romney's campaign didn't invent the campaign call-a-thon, but they did tweak the formula in one crucial way.
"The difference between this and other call days," said Zwick, "is that the volunteers here bring their own networks. They're calling people they know."
It would be fair to say the former Massachusetts governor has proven more adept at collecting checks than votes.
So instead of reading a script to a stranger in an unfamiliar state, the volunteers on Monday were chatting up their friends, co-workers, and family members. These contacts are not only more likely to politely listen to the entire pitch; they're also more likely to be Romney supporters, since friends tend to come from similar socio-economic backgrounds and often share political views.
Why make the volunteers fly out to Vegas when they could make these phone calls from home? For one thing, it gave the campaign a chance to attack President Obama, who came under fire in 2009 after criticizing companies for planning recession-time retreats in Las Vegas. "The governor is sending the message today that Las Vegas is open for business," said Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's communications director.
But there was another reason—one that any sales manager could appreciate.
"It's motivating when you're all sitting together," Fehrnstrom said. "There's an excitement there."
The question for Romney this time around is whether he can translate the excitement at the fundraising tables to the ballot box.
McKay Coppins is a reporter for Newsweek and The Daily Beast covering politics and national affairs. His writing has also appeared in The Daily Caller and Salt Lake City's Deseret News.