I’m usually skeptical of claims made by party faithfuls who, in the aftermath of losing an election, claim that no ideological adjustments are necessary to win the next election. When Kerry was defeated by Bush, I rolled my eyes as the surviving liberal rump of the Democratic Party blamed their loss on a lack of partisan purity. Similarly, I rolled my eyes when 2009 Republicans said the path forward was a return to conservative principles. To me, in both instances, the remedy for electoral losses was a simple application of median voter politics: moving toward the middle yields more victories than retreating to extremes. A bitter medicine for those who belong to those extremes, perhaps, but Hippocrates would recommend no other.
In the wake of the 2012 elections, I have come to the opposite conclusion. If the Republican party changes nothing in the next four years, it will still enjoy excellent chances of taking the White House.
In very small part, this is because my move-to-the-middle prescription for losing parties has been defied by the evidence of the past decade. Democrats made large gains in 2006 and 2008 even as they refused all compromise and obstructed much of Bush’s agenda. Republicans succeeded similarly in 2010 by running a slate of Tea Party ideologues.
But for the most part, Republicans can safely shrug off this election because it is plainly different than the sea changes we witnessed in the previous three elections. The media has been quick to diagnose Republicans as victims of shifting demographics, and claim that their party is in decline because of a growing population of Hispanics and other Democratic constituencies. But demography is not destiny, at least not yet. This was not the sort of rebuke that Republicans received at the end of Bush’s second term. Nor was this the sort of rebuke that Democrats received in the 2010 midterm elections. Four hundred and thirty-five seats were up for grabs in the House of Representatives, and Republicans looked set to win almost as many as they had before. Do the pundits panicking over the GOP’s prospects think that Latino voters came out to the polls for the president, but did not bother to vote in house races? The Senate remained more or less unchanged as well, and in those races we do not see much evidence of demography flipping the outcome. In Indiana and Missouri, the GOP ran particularly poor candidates who weren’t just bad at appealing to a new electorate, but any electorate. And in North Dakota and Montana (states that Nate Silver, hallowed be his name, incorrectly predicted would go red), Democrats won by running as far away from President Obama as their voting record would let them. Technically, Democrats didn’t even take the Republican senate seat in Maine — the winner, Angus King, ran as a true independent. This is not a Democratic majority that has any sort of grand, progressive agenda.
This isn’t to say that Republicans shouldn’t soften their message on social issues, or defer more to their pro-business wing when voting on immigration. There’s no reason for the party to throw away free votes. But the media’s claim that this election was about a changing American electorate is utterly false. In 49 of 50 states, self-identified conservatives still outnumber self-identified liberals — only in our own little bubble of Massachusetts is the opposite true. America remains a center-right country, with no eminent change on the horizon — if anything, the past few years have seen a sharp increase in those identifying themselves as conservative.
So what happened? If it was not young, female minorities that did Romney in, then what did?
Barack Obama was a particularly strong candidate. He consistently out-polled his own party, retaining his favorability even as Democrats lost theirs. Mitt Romney was a particularly weak candidate — not because of a purist ideology (if anything the charge against him was that he had no ideology), but because his biography, his personality, and his political record left him vulnerable. During the primaries, Republicans spent months casting for anyone — anyone but the boring, flip-flopping Mormon. But alas, Romney faced no serious challenger in the primaries, even though many were available.
The president enjoyed almost all of the advantages of incumbency and none of its drawbacks. While in office, he was able to buy the votes of Midwest swing states with a public giveaway to car manufacturing corporations and their organized union workforce. Meanwhile, the weaknesses in the president’s record were off-limits: Republicans tapped a man almost uniquely unable to mount an attack on either the issue of healthcare (because of his record as a governor), or Obama’s early term bank bailouts (due to his background in private equity).
The campaign became exactly the sort that both Republicans and challengers wish to avoid. It was an election focused almost wholly on the economy, offering Romney little opportunity to highlight national security issues where the Republican brand has strength. Meanwhile, Obama out-funded his challenger and ran one of the most negative campaigns in U.S. political history — the standard recipe for retaining the status quo.