Tuesday night’s election result has left conservatives (and reportedly Romney himself) shell-shocked, dumbfounded and a little traumatized by the seemingly gravity-defying political skills of President Barack Obama. Obama, who has won reelection to the office of president with the highest unemployment rate since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and facing Carter-esque trends in terms of the United States’ strength abroad, was supposed to be the most vulnerable president in recent memory, and arguably the one whose opponents should have felt most confident about defeating — especially in the wake of a late campaign surge by Republican Mitt Romney after a decisive debate defeat for Obama.
Because of these trends, many Republicans and commentators (this author included) dismissed early warning signs that despite running a terrible campaign, Obama was still leading in the polls because of an increasingly Democratic electorate. Polling samples showing increased Democrat leads were denounced as the result of media-biased induced sampling errors, rather than genuinely frightening signs of danger. As a result, Obama eked out a sleeper victory, and many Republicans — confronted with the brutal reality that their victory was not so assured as possible — have since wondered what exactly went wrong.
As it turns out, a lot more than anyone could have seen coming went wrong, which is why so many on the Right are now talking of the need for a drastic retooling of conservative policy positions, while (in most cases) still defending root conservative principles. After all, without a winning coalition, ideologies inevitably end up on the ash heap of history. The following are seven reasons why Republicans should be worried about facing this potential electoral wipeout.
7. How “Pro-Life” Became “Pro-Rape”
Prior to the 2012 election cycle, Democrats tended to treat their stances on social issues as distractions, and rarely grounded their case for reelection on them unless they were facing safe electorates. This was especially the case with abortion, where the radical feminist wing of the Democratic party had a tendency to stick its foot in its mouth by treating unborn children as parasites, and to argue that any restriction, no matter how titular, upon a woman’s “right” to an abortion was an attack upon the very idea of female self-determination.
This led Democrats to walk on proverbial eggshells while discussing the issue of abortion, usually couching it in vagueness. Republicans, by contrast, who usually argued for the issue being resolved at the state level (and for the retraction of the extremely dubious Supreme Court precedents cementing abortion as a right), could openly discuss their pro-life views without worrying as much about damaging their prospects. In fact, arguably the only thing Republicans really had to worry about was being careful to frame their views on abortion as still holding compassion for unwilling mothers, either by including exceptions for rape and incest, or by eloquently and carefully explaining the importance of not murdering innocents, even in those morally difficult cases.
All that changed when Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) uttered two words: “Legitimate rape.”
Those two words may go down as the phrase that put the entire Republican party on the defensive surrounding abortion. After Akin’s scientifically illiterate mega-gaffe (and the frantic push by practically every conservative in America to get him to drop out), liberals pounced. Previous skirmishes surrounding contraception – such as the controversy over Rush Limbaugh attacking Sandra Fluke – had already put the GOP at defensive pains to explain that it did not want to return to the sexual mores of the 50′s when it came to women’s health and reproductive freedom. Akin’s comments left the impression that he didn’t view pregnancies resulting from rape (actually a depressingly common phenomenon) as a problem worth even thinking about.
As a result, liberals were free to make the case that the GOP wanted to transform women into brood mares not only with dubious martyrs like Sandra Fluke, but also with the words of a candidate for US Senate. Subsequent utterances late in the game by Tea Party candidate Richard Mourdock only reinforced the unfair perception being peddled by the Democrats that “pro-life” meant “pro-rape.” Thus, the usual roles surrounding arguments over abortion flipped, with liberals taking the stance of outraged defenders of innocent people (in this case, rape victims) against conservatives, who had to frantically protest that they had no desire to hurt anyone.
Fortunately for conservatives, this particular problem may not last more than this election cycle, given that both candidates who reinforced it lost what should have been easy pickup seats. However, liberals are unlikely to forget the effectiveness of using sensitive issues like rape as rhetorical traps, and as such, the world is now a much less safe place for pro-life candidates.
And this isn’t the only problem the GOP has with gender…
6. The “Julia”-fication of the Female Vote
Back in May, the Obama campaign released what appeared to many at the time like an exercise in self-parody: A series of slides depicting the fictional life of a woman named “Julia,” who seemed to rely at practically every turn on government programs to lead a good life. Julia’s story stretched from childhood through old age, and as many remarked at the time, seemed to include a mystifying absence of any relevant community figures, whether they be friends, romantic partners, employers, religious leaders or even her own parents. What’s worse, all of these seemingly vital human relationships in Julia’s life had been completely subsumed by the government.
Conservatives laughed at this and kept on laughing when the Obama campaign released an even more insulting (and seemingly desperate) follow-up in late October in the form of the infamous “Lena Dunham ad,” in which a Hollywood actress all but explicitly compared voting for the first time to having sex for the first time:
The reason for this derision was and is quite clear: That liberals would win women voters seemed impossible, given how insulting, patronizing and seemingly creepy their view of women’s decision-making looked to conservatives.
Flash forward to election night. The exit polls show Republicans losing women voters to Democrats by 10 points. Single women, the group apparently targeted by both the above ads went 2-1 for President Obama. At best, this means that this view of women won’t do any damage to the Democrats. At worst, it may actually have helped them.
Granted, the exit polls do leave some room for optimism on this front. David C. Wilson at the Huffington Post has written an article showing that relative to the population at large, Romney’s very successful showing among white women actually means he won the majority of women (more about this mathematical oddity later). However, relative to the electorate, Romney still ended up losing the female vote because of wide turnout among women in groups that were more likely to see government as their potential husband, parent, provider, and yes, even sexual partner. That this level of enthusiasm existed, given the Democrats’ patronizing approach, is a stark philosophical problem for a party that believes personal responsibility is a political winner.
And speaking of the exit polls…
5. Romney Won on the Economy
To many conservatives, this may look like a reason for optimism. It actually is arguably far worse. One of the main arguments conservatives used to comfort themselves in the face of bad poll numbers late in the campaign was the idea that no president could possibly win with this economy. This was, in fact, the center point of Romney’s political campaign: “The President cannot manage the economy effectively, whereas I (Romney) can.”
The exit polls show Romney taking a razor thin lead on who would handle the economy better. By contrast, President Obama enjoyed a decisive ten point advantage on who understood average people better. Romney still ended up falling well short of Obama. The best case scenario for Romney’s campaign here is that the voters decided the evidence of who would handle the economy was inconclusive and went for empathy as a tiebreaker. The worst case scenario is that voters heard Romney’s pitch, agreed with it, and simply didn’t care that he’d be economically competent, because they preferred someone who empathized with them.
A further, similar problem comes in the breakdown of independents. As Romney’s campaign predicted, he won by a double digit margin with independents. However, when it came to self-described moderates, he ended up losing. In fact, 17 percent of self-described “conservatives” even ended up voting for Obama! In a campaign where a candidate loses that many people he should win in spite of being successful in making his core economic pitch, the party who ran that campaign has a problem.
4. Swing States Swing Left on Social Issues
Prior to 2012, two vaunted causes of the Left (and in some cases, of right-leaning libertarians) had yet to enjoy victory at the state-level ballot box: Gay marriage and legal recreational marijuana use. The former cause especially suffered from a failure at the electoral level, as President Obama’s victory in 2008 also ushered in California’s much-despised Proposition 8, which now may end up before the Supreme Court as a potential civil rights violation.
2012 broke this trend, and broke it emphatically. Maine, previously a state that had rejected same-sex marriage, backed it by 54% over 46%. Maryland voters supported it by 51% to 49%. Washington state supported it by 52% to 48%. Minnesota rejected an amendment banning gay marriage by 52% to 48%.
Granted, these votes all came from relatively blue-leaning states. However, the really big shift leftward on social issues occurred in one of the states that ended up deciding the election for Barack Obama – namely, Colorado, where a law allowing all consumption of marijuana passed by a whopping 10 point margin. A similar law also passed in Washington state. The fact that a swing state like Colorado is moving in this direction, and that gay marriage is no longer a surefire loser, is a warning sign all on its own for the still majority social conservative GOP. Moreover, it may be a success for social libertarians that they owe to a similar share of the electorate being made up of young voters to the share that existed in 2008.
And on that note…
3. Young Voters are Social Liberals, First and Foremost
Thursday, Buzzfeed posted a story on the topic of the next generation of Republican operatives. It contains findings that may shed light on the giant generational gap that still showed itself on Tuesday night:
The younger generation is at least as conservative — in some cases, more conservative — about the role of government, many of them libertarian idealists and foreign policy hawks too junior even to have been on the front lines of Bush Administration successes and failures. But they also spent their early careers stifling disgust at a kind of gay-baiting politics that has little resonance even on young social conservatives who still care deeply about abortion; and they are similarly free of any sense of allegiance to, or guilt for, Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy, with its wink at the racist policies of segregation.[...]
The wide agreement among the younger operatives on the need for a generational upgrade is matched by a near consensus on a pair of issues: gay rights and immigration. That’s a generational shift reflected by supporters’ unprecedented sweep in four ballot initiatives and referenda on Tuesday around the country. On immigration, they believe in the rule of law and support securing the border, but also want their party to get credit for a compromise solution that normalizes the status of most undocumented people in this country.
Remember, those two paragraphs are about young Republicans. The wider demographic is far less cordial, and the numbers prove it. Obama won young voters by a stunning 60-36 percent. This is smaller than his 66-31 percent victory against John McCain in 2008, but not by nearly enough. What’s worse, it is still an improvement for Democrats over their performance in 2004, when Kerry enjoyed just a 9 percent advantage with youth voters.
Moreover, the share of the electorate this year that was made up of voters aged 18-29 might have actually increased since 2008. In states like Minnesota, where gay marriage was on the ballot, the number was even higher and may have made the difference for measures like the gay marriage initiative.
To their credit, Republicans tried to make the case to these voters this year by consistently emphasizing that they would get jobs under a Romney administration. They presumably theorized that the number of young voters who are unemployed would make this problem a winning issue.
They appear to have been wrong. Whereas the Romney campaign tried to win young voters as pocket book voters, most of the Obama campaign’s messaging to young voters focused on social issues like access to contraception, or gay rights. More than a few prominent celebrities made statements that went viral on social networking sites warning young people that voting on the basis of economic issues was effectively a decision to treat gays as subhuman. These tactics appear to have been drastically more successful, and the takeaway as of now could be that a socially illiberal Republican party – especially on the question of gay marriage – has no chance at all of winning young voters.
As hinted above in the section on women, GOP nominee Mitt Romney carried the white vote handily. In fact, he won whites by a wider margin than Ronald Reagan, and also took independents.
Yet unlike Reagan, Romney lost the election. Why? Because mathematically, whites made up eight percent less of the population than during the Reagan coalition. The groups who filled that gap – mostly Hispanics and Blacks – were not nearly so cordial to Romney.
Part of this problem for Romney sprang a massive failure to turn out white voters, combined with a deadly effective push among minorities via the Obama campaign. However, any party that has to virtually write off entire demographics in its electoral map is still in trouble. And as the following graphs taken from political scientist David C. Wilson show, when it came to nonwhites, Romney was in dire, dire trouble.
The problem should be obvious – in every demographic where Romney technically won the white vote, even by a whisker, he was outpaced by massive margins among minorities. Why this might be the case is less straightforward than in the case of the apparently socially motivated young voters, but it portends a coming demographic apocalypse for the GOP, given that the minority population has steadily grown and the white population has steadily shrunk since the 80′s. The Reagan coalition simply isn’t big enough to win a majority of the country anymore, and new sources of votes need to be found.
The silver lining is that many Republican leaders already understand this problem. The day after the election, Newt Gingrich told CNN that “inclusion” had to be the watchword of the GOP when it came to minorities:
And just for our audience, there’s a difference between outreach and inclusion. Outreach is when five white guys have a meeting and call you. Inclusion is when you’re in the meeting, which inherently changes the whole tenor of the meeting. This will be a big challenge for the House Republicans. They’re a very comfortable majority; with a Democratic president they’re likely to stay a majority for a long time. The question is do they want to, in a disciplined way, create a schedule and a program and include people who are not traditionally Republican order to grow a party that in 2016 is competitive.
Moreover, the demographic groups involved here may shift with time. Megan McCardle at the Daily Beast writes:
Ethnic coalitions are inherently unstable. It used to be a sort of natural law that urban Catholics voted Democratic. Then Reagan won them in huge numbers. And–contra those who are saying that the GOP now has to move left–they didn’t win by getting more liberal. Rather, the Democrats got more liberal, on crime and bussing, and the white ethnics who felt victimized by these policies fled. The more ethnic groups you have, the more likely it is that you will eventually find the goals of those ethnic groups in direct conflict. And the Democrats sure do have a lot of groups.
McArdle also offers hope on the question of social liberalism, and her full article is worth checking out for those who want a shot of optimism. However, the challenge is still there, and signals a need for at least a shift in tactics.
1. Ground Game
This is number one for a reason. Even given all the reasons above – the shifting demographics, the social liberalism of young voters, the increasing friendliness toward government among women and the desire for empathy among voters generally, Romney might still have been able to win, but for two gigantic factors:
- The Democrats turned out all the people who were most likely to vote for them, and appear likely to be able to for the foreseeable future.
- The Republican effort to get out the vote was a bug-ridden, data-deprived mess.
The power of the Democratic ground game has already been rehearsed, and is not something Republicans can really correct for, except to see its power coming. And as it turns out, that was precisely what the Republicans (and especially the Romney campaign) did not do. In fact, since the election, stories have trickled out showing a jaw-dropping degree of waste, incompetence and short-sightedness within the Romney campaign.
Don’t take our word for it – Ace of Spades’ account of the problems with the Republican GOTV (Get Out The Vote) program jokingly called “ORCA” sums it all up. In fact, conservative author John Podhoretz has been using his Twitter feed to retweet horror stories of ORCA’s ineffectiveness all day today, including grim jokes from Republican operatives that ORCA was “lying on a beach with a harpoon in its side.” As Ace notes, here’s what it was supposed to do:
The entire purpose of this project was to digitize the decades-old practice of strike lists. The old way was to sit with your paper and mark off people that have voted and every hour or so, someone from the campaign would come get your list and take it back to local headquarters. Then, they’d begin contacting people that hadn’t voted yet and encourage them to head to the polls. It’s worked for years.
But if failed. The nonfunctional nature of this supposedly state-of-the-art technological program, which was billed by the Romney campaign as a game-changing bit of political technology, left Republican operatives for literally hours doing nothing, when they should have been getting out the vote for their candidates.
To put it mildly, this kind of incompetence in the face of arguably the most sophisticated get out the vote and political data mining operation ever created (Obama’s) was never going to succeed. And yet the Romney campaign evinced mind boggling confidence about their operation. Why? Because as of 4 PM on election day, ORCA was forecasting a Romney victory of 290 – 303 electoral votes, based on up to the minute data from volunteers.
Actually, the program had crashed.
Fortunately for Republicans, this problem is almost certain to be addressed in the next election cycle. However, if the trends presented above persist, then even a drastically improved Get Out The Vote operation might not be enough to achieve victory. The GOP is in trouble – trouble of a systemic, tactical and practical nature.
And for the reasons outlined above, those who want to see it win in the future have a long way to go.