The 2012 election can only be seen as a bitter disappointment for conservatives and the Republican Party. An incumbent well to the left of center with limited job approval ran for reelection burdened by high unemployment and huge budget deficits – and won.
In these situations, the losing candidate always comes in for their share of the blame, and Governor Mitt Romney certainly wasn’t a perfect candidate, nor was his campaign error-free. But the reasons for Republicans’ lack of success this year go far deeper than our candidate’s personal appeal.
First, the Obama campaign did a first rate job of targeting and turning out their voters in battleground states. Their ground game was as good as advertised. Through a judicious use of state-of-the-art social media systems and technology, Obama won virtually every important state by razor thin margins. The campaign ignored red states and focused its energy and resources to leverage a very narrow popular vote majority into a convincing victory in the Electoral College. Republicans are getting better but need to work harder to match Democrats’ modern online voter ID tools and expertise.
Second, Republicans were unable to convince voters that they had a clear set of alternative policies that would produce significantly better economic results for the country than Obama’s record, which featured little economic growth or job creation and huge budget deficits. This was thought to be the GOP’s strongest argument, but it didn’t move the electorate nearly enough for Romney to win.
The task was complicated by the willingness of many voters to blame former President George W. Bush rather than the man in charge for the past four years for our poor economic circumstances. Also, the (very) slowly improving economic numbers convinced a plurality of voters that the economy was actually getting better rather than worse.
Obama argued that he was doing the best anyone could under the circumstances. Much of the mainstream media bought his argument completely. When Romney announced his 12 million job creation goal, very achievable by historic standards, most in the media scoffed and immediately pronounced it unattainable.
We are learning to settle for less because government continues to perform so poorly. Thus did the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression become the Gold Standard for presidential leadership and economic policymaking.
We need to redouble our efforts to explain in the clearest possible terms why limited government, including proper tax and regulatory policies, leads to prosperity while big government does just the opposite.
Third, it is undeniable that the GOP has serious institutional weaknesses that must be addressed and soon. Young voters last supported the Republican nominee in 1988 – a quarter century ago. They supported the Obama administration again this year despite the huge deficits they will ultimately pay for and a lack of real economic opportunity the past four years.
Mitt Romney actually did worse than John McCain among Hispanics, the fastest growing ethnic group in the country. Romney can be faulted here for moving sharply in a nativist direction in the primaries and then spurning the chance to work with Senator Marco Rubio to produce a GOP version of the “Dream Act.”
The result was that Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado were won by Obama for the second consecutive election. Unless Republicans come to grips with the immigration issue, more states will become unwinnable, including Arizona and even Texas. There is no more urgent priority for Republicans than to aggressively compete for Hispanic support.
Finally, the gender gap remains as big as ever. Republicans continue to have problems with moderate suburban moms and single women – even though many of these voters agree with their economic message.
It is a dubious strategy for any candidate to speak so insensitively and cavalierly about why women who are victims of violent assault cannot be trusted to make their own health and medical decisions.
Republicans need a new agenda to focus attention on strengthening the multiple roles women uniquely fulfill in our society – as wife, as mother and caregiver, and as breadwinner, sometimes the only breadwinner for her family and children. Our goal should be to identify with the overlapping challenges many women face and to develop policies to make it easier for modern women to achieve these multiple economic and social objectives.
It is said that we learn far more in defeat than victory. That’s why these next few months will be crucial as Republicans consider the future of their party.
Frank Donatelli is the Chairman of GOPAC, an organization dedicated to educating and electing a new generation of Republican leaders. He previously served as Political Director for President Ronald Reagan.