Do’s and Don’ts for the Future
More than anything else, I think the underlying message of the 2012 presidential campaign is that how the two main political parties adapt to the changing demographics of the United States will largely dictate future success. Republicans were flummoxed that the Democratic coalition of 2008 came out again in 2012. They simply assumed the young voters, minorities and single women who drove President Barack Obama’s victory four years ago would not turn out in similar numbers this year. They also thought the Republican drive to oust Mr. Obama from office would have enough appeal to older white voters, especially men, and that their enthusiasm would overwhelm whatever organizing advantages Democrats had on the ground.
Wrong on both counts.
Primaries and early debates hurt Romney
The Romney plan was that he would not to be outflanked by more conservative Republicans during the Republican Party primary elections and then make the general election campaign solely a referendum on President Obama’s handling of the economy. Well, Mr. Romney surely got to the right of his rivals. He destroyed Texas Governor Rick Perry in the debates over the issue of who was tougher on illegal immigration. The problem was all the talk about “self-deportation” and the lack of a plan to offer a path to citizenship really hurt the Romney campaign with Hispanic voters. Mr. Obama actually improved on his showing with Hispanics this year and 71 percent of them supported him. Even Cuban-Americans in Florida broke slightly for the president, a constituency that has been reliably Republican in the past.
So after burning bridges with Hispanic voters in the primaries, the Romney campaign took the traditional track of building party unity in the month between securing the nomination and the Republican convention in August.
Big mistake. The Obama campaign launched an ad blitz in early summer that sought to define Mitt Romney as an out of touch, rich, unfeeling former corporate CEO who had little feel for the struggles of the middle class. Amazingly the Republicans just let it play. The Obama camp took a page out of the George W. Bush re-election playbook from 2004 and jumped to define their opponent before he could do it himself. Of all the money spent this year on ads and campaign efforts (estimates total about $6 billion) this was the money best put to use.
Adding insult to injury, the Republicans blew an opportunity at their convention to reach out to moderates and Hispanics and instead tried to reinforce their core anti-Obama message, all the while doing little to burnish Mr. Romney’s personal image. The moving film about Mr. Romney’s background, family, religion and personal efforts to help people was bumped out of the prime 10pm television hour so that Hollywood actor Clint Eastwood could rant at an empty chair containing an imaginary President Obama. I imagine a lot of Republicans were muttering to themselves after the results came in last Tuesday.
The Obama machine
In the closing days of the campaign, Republicans kept talking about momentum and enthusiasm and a “feeling” that Mr. Romney was gaining and going to win. The campaign went into Pennsylvania at the last minute and talked about widening the map to traditionally Democratic Minnesota as well. Turns out it was all a bluff.
While Republican strategists offered gut feelings and aspirations, the Obama campaign was busy rounding up votes with the most effective ground game and turnout effort of the modern political era. In short the Republicans were out hussled and outclassed.
Democrats won eight of the nine targeted swing states, including Florida and Virginia, two states many were willing to concede to the Romney camp early on. Despite frantic efforts by the Romney team, the Obama camp was able to hold on to Ohio, though narrowly. But the Obama campaign also won convincing victories in Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin and New Hampshire, states where the Romney campaign had projected victories. The president’s campaign team stuck to its plan and executed in near flawless fashion, finding voters that in the words of one Romney strategist “we didn’t even know existed.”
Thanks to growing support from Hispanics and Asian-American voters, Democrats are now looking to broaden their electoral reach in the future. Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina could be in play soon and some Democrats even fantasize about one day being competitive in Texas, thanks to the growth of the Hispanic vote.
It will take a while for Republicans to get over this defeat and then to come up with a game plan to counter the Democrats in the future.
Already we’re hearing different explanations for the Romney loss from different factions of the party. Some of the more conservative Tea Party types say the party elites doomed their chances from the start by picking a moderate like Mitt Romney. Other old school conservative activists like Richard Viguerie say the problem was that the party once again did not nominate a true conservative in the mold of Ronald Reagan, though I’ve had Republican friends of mine point out they doubt Mr. Reagan could make it through a Republican primary this year.
But many Republican analysts have already seized on the need to broaden the party beyond its base of older white voters to include at least some portion of the Hispanic vote. After all, President George W. Bush did pick up 40 percent or so of that vote in 2004, so there is some precedent for improvement.
Republicans also continue to have problems with women voters. They preferred the president by about 12 points overall this year and that played out in some Senate races as well, especially in Missouri and Indiana where Democratic candidates prevailed.
The Republican navel-gazing will take some time, but I’m sure the buzz will already start to build about who might be in the spotlight for the 2016 presidential nomination fight, especially New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, 2012 vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
There’s always the unexpected
Some thought Mitt Romney would salvage his White House hopes with his especially strong performance in his first debate with President Obama on October 3rd. That debate did change the trajectory of the race and probably made it closer than it would have been otherwise. Most importantly it probably gave Republicans new hope that Mr. Romney could actually win the White House. But of course, that made his defeat that much harder to swallow later on.
The other surprise came in November thanks to Mother Nature. Hurricane Sandy not only blew through the East Coast, it may have blown away any fading chances for Mr. Romney to win. The storm coverage knocked the campaign off the airwaves for a few critical days even as many Americans were already engaged in early voting. And the images of President Obama walking shoulder to shoulder and surveying storm damage with Republican Chris Christie proved to be a powerful counterpoint to Republican attacks on the president for being too partisan. Sandy may not have won the president a second term, but it probably stalled Romney’s momentum at the end, ending any hopes of a late Republican surge.