Why Stuart Stevens is (mostly) right

February 25, 2013

Mitt Romney didn't lose the 2012 election because of technology.

That's the argument forwarded by Stuart Stevens, Romney's 2012 political Svengali in an op-ed piece for the Washington Post today. And he's right -- mostly.

Barack Obama's campaign was light years ahead of where Romney's was in terms of how to use technology to reach voters -- especially young ones. And, Obama won under 30 year voters overwhelmingly. While those two facts are related, one is the not the direct result of the other.

"This sort of thinking is how cultures end up worshiping volcanoes: A volcano belches in a drought, it rains and the two are forever linked," writes Stevens of the tendency to directly link technological know-how with winning with young voters. (The cover story of last week's New York Times magazine details the troubling trends -- in both arenas -- for Republicans.)

The simple fact is that Republicans lost so badly among young people -- Obama took 60 percent to 37 percent for Romney among voters under 30 according to exit polling -- because their messaging didn't appeal to the group. Romney spent too much of the campaign talking about the need to avoid raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans and deflecting outside-of-the-mainstream views on social issues held by some within his party.  For young people, who tend toward social liberalism, there was very little in what Romney was talking about that spoke to them.

Given that, the technology gap was less meaningful than it might have been if Romney had found a message that worked for those under 30 voters. Technology without a powerful underlying message is just lots of fancy tools that don't/won't do much. (It's like that great old advertising maxim: No matter how good the marketing campaign is, if the dog doesn't like the dog food it won't be a big seller.)

Again then, Stevens has the right of it then when he writes: "[Obama] didn’t win because he won the Facebook wars; he won the Facebook wars because he was winning."

There is one off note in Stevens' assessment of why Romney lost, however. That comes when he assesses the portion of Obama's message that drew young people to his campaign. Here's Stevens' breakdown.

"I don’t think it’s very controversial to suggest that a candidate who favors gay marriage and free contraception might have more appeal to a younger demographic. Does anyone want to argue that free contraception is seen as a more pressing issue to your average 21-year-old than to a 55-year-old voter, or that there are more gay rights organizations on college campuses than in VFW halls?"

There's little evidence in the exit polling to suggest that gay marriage or free contraception played a major role in determining how voters under 30 chose their candidate.

A majority (54 percent) of voters aged 18-29 said that the economy was the number one issue for them while 21 percent named health care.  In theory, those "health care" voters could have contraception as part of their issue matrix but seeing as how 18 percent of the overall population called health care their most important voting issue that seems unlikely.

Stevens' diagnosis of what ails his party with young voters is, in the main, right, though.  The party does have a technology problem. But, far more importantly, it has a message problem. That's where the smartest minds in the GOP should be focused if they want to reclaim the White House in 2016.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan | February 25, 2013