In an election year with unemployment hovering at 8 percent and millions of Americans deeply concerned about their future, in a year with no campaign-finance laws to prevent rich conservatives from dumping as much money as they wished into the process, in a year featuring an incumbent who motivated the GOP base by his mere existence, the Republican Party lost.
And it wasn’t just the presidency that they lost. At the beginning of the year, with Democrats forced to defend 23 Senate seats while Republicans defended just 10, GOP leaders were all but certain that they would reclaim Senate control and oust Harry Reid as majority leader. It was an historic opportunity.
Instead, they lost two seats. They lost five seats in the House as well, including, at last count, that of Allen West of Florida and Joe Walsh in Illinois. Michele Bachmann barely survived in a heavily Republican district. (UPDATE: The latest numbers suggest that the GOP will lose seven seats in the House, not five.)
In other signs of a changing America, voters in Maine and Maryland approved measures legalizing gay marriage. In Washington, a measure to legalize gay marriage also appears to have passed. In Minnesota, voters rejected a measure that would ban gay marriage. In Wisconsin, voters elected the nation’s first openly gay person to the Senate. And in Colorado and Washington, voters easily approved the recreational use of marijuana.
Three additional points:
The polls were not skewed. Needing an excuse to explain why the polls were so consistently unfriendly to Republicans, Fox News and the conservative media invented one: The pollsters were conspiring with the mainstream media to defraud conservatives. More specifically, the theory went, polls were showing Democrats outnumbering Republicans by a six- or seven-point margin. There’s no way that could be true, conservatives told themselves.
In one sense, it was the perfect explanation. It appealed to the GOP’s inherent distrust of experts who tell them things they don’t want to hear, and also played to their longstanding anger at the media. Eventually, though, all such explanations get “trued up” against reality. And in reality, Democrats did end up with a six-point turnout advantage over Republicans, just as predicted.
This was not Mitt Romney’s fault. Quite the contrary. From the beginning, Romney was the only GOP candidate who was even faintly plausible as president. Would Newt Gingrich have done better? Rick Santorum? Bachmann? Herman Cain? Rick Perry? Please. The blowout would have been epic.
Yes, Romney did pivot from “severely conservative” to moderate right before the first debate, and some in his party will now try to attribute his defeat to that decision. You know the drill: “He was a RINO, and RINOs always lose.” That easy excuse ignores the fact that Romney made that pivot because his “severely conservative” persona was getting killed in the polls at the time. When he changed, the polls changed. This race was close at the end only because he ditched conservatism and embraced moderation.
But here’s where the evidence gets incontrovertible: Last night, the GOP put up a viable Senate candidate in 17 states; most of those 17 candidates ran well to the right of Romney. If conservatism was a winning message, they should have done better with voters than the moderate Romney did.
The exact opposite proved true. In 12 of those 17 states, Romney outperformed the conservative Senate candidate. In six states, Romney outperformed the GOP Senate candidate by a double-digit margin. In five states, Romney outperformed the Republican Senate candidate by 15 points or more.
And the five GOP Senate candidates who did better in their states than Romney?* Every single one ran as a moderate. Overall, voters rejected conservatism, and “moderate Mitt” deserves great credit for squeezing every vote possible out of a tough situation.
But every vote possible wasn’t enough.
The country has changed; the GOP has not. Republicans lost badly among Latino voters, black voters, gay voters, Jewish voters and women. They once again did quite well among white voters, who comprised 72 percent of the electorate. But that’s down from 74 percent in 2008, which was down from 77 percent in 2004, which was down from 80 percent in 2000.
Does anybody see a trend in those numbers?
But other numbers are just as daunting. In exit polls yesterday, 74 percent of Republican voters said that they believe illegal immigrants should be deported instead of offered a chance at citizenship. That is clearly a core issue for the GOP base. Yet overall, just 29 percent of Americans share that opinion.
How do you convince that 74 percent of Republicans that their party has to change and change pretty dramatically if it’s to compete in the emerging America? How do you convince them that they have to break out of the lily-white political ghetto in which they’ve confined themselves?
It’s going to take leadership. It’s going to take people such as Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal and Jeb Bush and Chris Christie telling hard truths to a base that has often found ingenious ways to avoid hard truths. It’s going to take a willingness to compromise and a willingness to change and a willingness to confront the talk-radio hosts and special interest groups who see no personal benefit to such change.
Overall, the narrowness of the GOP defeat in the presidential race disguises just how significant this election really was. The ground was prepared perfectly for a major GOP victory — everything was in place — and the opposite happened. And it’s not something new. In the last six presidential cycles, the GOP candidate has won a plurality of votes just once. That was George W. Bush in 2004, riding the fumes of his post-9/11 performance.
This was a message election, in terms of both ideology and demography, and from here on out that message is going to be restated louder and louder and louder until the Republican Party finds a way to respond to it.
– Jay Bookman
*The states in question are Connecticut, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Nevada and New Mexico.