WASHINGTON -- Stu Stevens' recounting of the 2012 campaign is a tale of woe.
The former senior strategist for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign on Wednesday played up the campaign's disadvantages -- so much so that he seemed to be arguing the election was unwinnable.
Stevens, who is now helping his business partner Russ Schriefer on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's reelection campaign, has made only a few on-the-record appearances since November, most of them in formal panel settings or on network Sunday shows. But he agreed to take questions from a handful of reporters at a breakfast hosted Wednesday by National Review. Wearing a plain black suit, a blue shirt open at the collar and standard black dress shoes and socks, Stevens was his usual self: charming and funny, but slippery when asked to confront the shortcomings of the Romney campaign.
Romney staffers have notably refrained from back-biting after the election, but in private conversations some have said that aside from the candidate himself, they hold Stevens primarily responsible for the campaign's many mistakes. One of the biggest was betting on the idea that the economy would continue to be so bad that voters would throw the incumbent out, rather than encouraging Romney to make himself an acceptable, even compelling alternative.
Stevens, however, had a ready list of reasons why the 2012 result was out of his -- as well as Romney's and the campaign's -- control.
He talked at length about President Barack Obama's money advantage: "Obama raised $1.2 billion. So you think about it, the next incumbent president will raise, what, $2 billion?" Stevens said. He argued the next incumbent candidate will "face a challenger ... who will probably come out of the [primary] process broke."
"We've abolished the four-year term," he concluded.
Stevens talked about how Jen O'Malley-Dillon, a deputy campaign manager for Obama, spent years setting up the president's voter outreach and grassroots mobilization efforts. "These are just monumental advantages that they have," he said.
Describing his reaction to a question about why the Romney campaign lost the battle to define its candidate, Stevens said he felt "kind of like Travis at the Alamo being asked, 'How did you let yourself get surrounded?' It wasn't our choice. There were a lot of soldiers out there."
But when asked about criticisms that Obama's campaign was run more like an efficient business than Romney's, Stevens -- who was employed by a media firm, American Rambler Productions, that was paid millions of dollars by the campaign for a multitude of services -- backtracked from his focus on resources.
"They're always talking about how Obama had more people. They talk about this with the media buys," Stevens said, a reference to what Politico called Stevens' "unusual in-house ad strategy."
"It's hysterical. You know, Obama had 27 people doing this. It's like, that's good? ... When did we start bragging that, like, having more people doing something is a good thing?" Stevens asked. "I thought it was supposed to be the other way -- that the fewer people that could do a good job is like a good thing."
Yet seconds later Stevens was back to decrying the Romney campaign's lack of resources as compared to the president's: "We didn't have Air Force One. We didn't have the White House. You know, they had 800 people in Florida."
Stevens did point to other losing factors for Romney: First, the economy improved during the election cycle; second, right track/wrong track numbers in public opinion polls went the wrong direction for Romney; and the president's response to Hurricane Sandy improved Obama's favorability rating just before the election. All true.
And he did admit that Obama won because the president had a superior message, especially for minority voters; Stevens said it might be true that the Romney campaign "could have done a better job capturing people's imaginations."
Finally this reporter simply asked him, was the race unwinnable?
"No, no," Stevens said. "Look, if 220 some-odd [thousand] people change their votes, we would have won the electoral college; so anything that's that close, it's a close-run thing. We made mistakes, they made mistakes."
I pressed Stevens on whether there was anything the Romney campaign could have done differently to win, given the structural disadvantages he had highlighted.
"If I had one week in that campaign it was the South Carolina primary," Stevens said. "The best thing we could have done is win the primary early. But what was the South Carolina primary about? The debates. So you're literally a bystander in that situation, pretty much, I think, right?"
That's something of an answer.
This story has been updated to make clear that Stevens was an employee of American Rambler Productions, not an owner.