The GOP's digital deficit and its woes with young voters
February 18, 2013By Dick Polman
Stuart Stevens, the veteran Republican strategist who helmed the dead-in-the-water Romney campaign, was asked yesterday to weigh in on what ails the GOP. That was a bit like asking a Carnival Cruise executive to forecast the future of the floating-hotel industry, but, hey, whatever.
"It would be a great mistake if we felt that technology in itself is going to save the Republican party. Technology is something to a large degree you can go out and purchase and if we think there's an off the shelf solution that you can go out and purchase for the Republican party, it’s wrong....We don’t have 140-character problem in the Republican party. We have a larger problem that we have to look at and be patient about it."
You need to know the context. As reported yesterday in an eye-opening New York Times Magazine article about the GOP's yawning digital deficit, Stevens ran a campaign that was technologically rooted in the previous century. He refused to communicate on Twitter at a time when his Obama counterparts were tweeting incessantly to the voters who skewed young. His techies were routed by Obama's techies, who connected on Facebook with triple the number of Romney friends. And Stewart's get-out-the-vote digital tool crashed on election day; by contrast, the Obama team's data platform helped the president rack up the second-highest popular vote total in history (second only to the Obama '08 vote total).
But the party's digital cluelessness is merely symptomatic of a more serious political illness.
Robert Draper, the Times magazine writer, who always has great Republican sources, put it this way:
"The unnerving truth, which...younger conservatives worry that their leaders have yet to appreciate, is that the Republican party’s technological deficiencies barely begin to explain why the GOP has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. The party brand - which is to say, its message and its messengers - has become practically abhorrent to emerging demographic groups like Latinos and African-Americans, not to mention an entire generation of young voters. As one of the party’s most highly respected strategists told me: 'It ought to concern people that the most Republican part of the electorate under Ronald Reagan were 18-to-29-year-olds. And today, people I know who are under 40 are embarrassed to say they’re Republicans. They’re embarrassed!'"
The article, which is well worth reading, demonstrates why Stuart Stevens' Sunday comment was so inadequate. He said that the GOP's technology deficit -- it continues to hire people who don't understand how to communicate with an increasingly diverse younger electorate -- isn't really the problem, because the GOP actually has "a larger problem." But the two problems go together. The party's failure to keep pace with state-of-the-art digital communication (one senior Romney official said of the Obama team, "They were playing chess while we were playing checkers") is a symptom of the party's backward-looking mindset. The same narrow mindset that threatens to alienate younger voters for the foreseeable future.
As Republican pollster Kristin Soltis Anderson ruefully told Draper, "There is a (party) brand. And it's that we're not in the 21st century." She reached that conclusion after she asked voters in an Ohio focus group to free-associate some words to describe the GOP. Here's what she had to write on the whiteboard: Corporate greed. Old. Middle-aged. White men. Rich. Religious. Conservative. Hypocritical. Military retirees. Narrow-minded. Rigid. Not progressive. Polarizing. Stuck in their ways. Farmers.
Worse yet, the few cutting-edge GOP digital specialists (who watched the Romney campaign from afar) complain that the Republican mindset is hampering their recruitment efforts. It's simple, really: The smartest digital talents tend to be young - but the GOP is alienating the young. The vicious cycle keeps spinning.
Michael Turk, a GOPer who's trying to narrow the digital chasm, voiced his woes to Draper. Get a load of this:
"I know a lot of people who do technology for a living.....And almost to a person that I've talked to, they say, 'Yeah, I would probably vote for Republicans, but I can't get past the gay-marriage ban, the abortion stance, all of these social causes.' Almost universally, they see a future where you have more (social) options, not less. So questions about whether you can be married to the person you want to be married to just flies in the face of the future. They don’t want to be part of an organization that puts them squarely on the wrong side of history."
In other words, every time some moral absolutist like Rick Santorium opens his mouth, the party alienates more of the young people who might be part of the digital solution.
Stuart Stevens did allude yesterday to the party's "larger problem," but it's questionable whether he knows how to address it. In a widely reviled post-election guest column, he boasted in The Washington Post that "Mitt Ronney captured the imagination of millions of Americans" - notably, white voters under the age of 30, who favored Romney over Obama by seven percentage points. What he failed to note was that Romney lost young Latinos (the fastest-growing group of young voters) by 51 points, that Romney lost young blacks by 83 points, and, ideologically, that Romney lost young independent swing voters by 23 points. Romney lost swing-state Florida by only one point, but he lost Florida's young voters by 34 points; he lost swing-state Ohio by two points, but he lost Ohio's young voters by 27 points; he lost Pennsylvania by five points, but lost Pennsylvania's young voters by 27 points.
All the polls show that voters under 30 (the most tech-savvy segment of the electorate) are more socially liberal than older voters, and more liberal than older voters about the role of government. And according to the Pew Research Center, voters under 30 "are by far the most racially and ethnically diverse age group." They're the future of the electorate. Obama grassroots guru David Plouffe told Draper that for a party to succeed, "you've got to understand the world you're competing in." But it's clear, from the complaints of its own people, that the GOP doesn't know what to say to a changing world - or how to marshal the best technology in order to say it.
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Or, as Neil Young advises: "Be the river, as it rolls along."
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