Barack Obama broke another barrier with his re-election: becoming the first president in the history of the republic to win a second term with less support in both the popular vote and the Electoral College than he received the first time he ran. When all ballots are counted, at least eight million Americans who backed him in 2008 will have either switched to Mitt Romney or failed to show up at the polls. Two important states that went for him last time—Indiana and North Carolina—reverted to their Republican roots and many others—Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, Virginia and Florida—chose the president by only the slimmest of margins. In contrast to the solid 52.9 percent of the electorate he carried in the hope-and-change campaign of 2008, Obama looks likely to fall below 50 percent of the popular vote this time, joining George W. Bush (first term), Bill Clinton (both terms), Richard Nixon (first term), John F. Kennedy, Harry Truman, Woodrow Wilson (both terms) and many others who earned the dubious distinction of serving as “minority presidents.”
Nevertheless, a win is a win and, for Republicans, a loss is a loss. If the GOP fails to learn from this particularly painful defeat then the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, of Ike and Reagan and George W. Bush, will suffer through many more heart-rending election nights in the years to come.
Three lessons suggest themselves in building toward future victories:
The party must make an immediate and sustained effort to reconnect with Latino voters. President Obama lost traction with most segments of the electorate compared to his performance in 2008, but he gained with the rapidly growing Hispanic community that represented a full 10 percent of all votes this year. Among Latinos, exit polls showed, the president scored an overwhelming 71 percent, compared to 67 percent in 2008, making it all but impossible for Republicans to prevail in formerly GOP states like Nevada and Colorado, and badly damaging their prospects across the country. George W. Bush won an estimated 44 percent among Hispanic voters in his 2004 re-election bid, and had Mitt Romney gotten that sort of support he could have conceivably picked up enough close states (Florida certainly, plus Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, Ohio, Iowa and more) to have won the election. There is simply no future for a party that loses the non-white vote—nearly 28 percent of the electorate this time—by margins of four to one. Even Romney’s crushing margin among the diminished number of white voters (where he won, 59-39) couldn’t make up the lost ground.
To deal with this potentially deadly problem and to build support in the Latino community (as well as among Asian-Americans, where Obama also won more than 70 percent), Republicans need a dramatic new approach to the immigration issue. Actually, George W. Bush provided a constructive example with his sincere but doomed efforts at immigration reform that combined a tough-minded emphasis on border security with compassion for the immigrants themselves. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio might team up with his old friend Jeb Bush to spearhead a new conservative initiative in this arena, rallying veteran Senators (John McCain? Lindsey Graham?) who have attempted to address the problem in the past. Above all, the party can no longer allow Tom Tancredo, Jan Brewer or the harshest voices on talk radio to speak for all conservatives on this issue. Unfortunately, Mitt Romney destroyed Rick Perry during primary season by clobbering him as “soft on immigration” so he had little room to change his tune or even his tone in the general election. One can only hope that the next nominee will avoid such crippling problems.
Romney’s experience makes it clear that all future candidates must act more proactively and aggressively to address questions about their personal finances. Mitt won’t be the last national nominee with significant monetary resources: in fact, the crushing cost of contemporary campaigns makes it unlikely that any contender could invest the necessary years for a successful presidential run without several million stashed away to provide for his family. Had Romney released basic information about his personal wealth from the outset of his campaign he could have blunted one of the most effective weapons the Democrats wielded against him in their largely unanswered negative ads of the summer season. When he finally (and belatedly) released a summary of twenty years of his entirely legal and suitable tax payments, along with his prodigious gifts to charity, it came too late to clear away the smears. Harry Reid had already done serious damage with his loathsome talk about an imaginary friend who told him that Mitt paid nothing in taxes. The public won’t hold it against future candidates if they’re rich: Americans tend to honor wealth creators as long as they know they’ve helped themselves (and others) openly and honestly. That’s certainly true of Mitt Romney, but he delayed and dodged for much too long, and made his disclosures in halting, grudging steps. Pre-emptive transparency is a much better policy.
The party’s Congressional leadership must make visible and dramatic efforts to avoid the impression of obstructionism and extremism in dealing with the re-elected president on the budget crisis. A few careless comments left a lasting impression during the president’s first term, like Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s unnecessary 2010 announcement that his top political priority would be preventing Obama’s re-election, or the much-discussed sentiments by media commentators that they wanted the administration to fail. The context of these remarks made them substantively defensible (yes, Republicans only wanted Obama to fail in his goals of systemic transformation) but they nonetheless helped the president in escaping personal responsibility for the toxic gridlock to which he contributed so much.
Moreover, failure for the administration under current circumstances would bring sequestration and disastrous defense cuts, across-the-board tax hikes and an ugly new recession for which Democrats would make every effort to blame conservatives. Republicans should take the lead in working with the president to find a way out of the present mess because the country needs it, and so does the party. Democratic cooperation with Ronald Reagan in the brilliantly successful tax reform of 1986 did nothing to diminish liberal prospects since they shared full credit for the achievement, just as Gingrich Republicans shared credit for the historic Clinton welfare reform of 1996. Paul Ryan, who returns as chair of the House Budget Committee, might be perfectly positioned to work as Congressional point man with the White House in a conspicuous leadership role that could enhance his own presidential ambitions for 2016.
To some extent, the parameters of the fiscal crisis dictate that any deals with the re-elected president will take a decidedly conservative course, protecting Republicans from charges that they are selling out their principles in working with Obama. The unprecedented levels of debt and deficit spending leave little room for the president’s grand plans for expensive new “investments” while his own Simpson-Bowles commission sketched a plausible tax reform scheme that both lowered rates and increased revenue.
Exit polls indicate real public weariness with partisan gamesmanship and polarization, along with suggestions that most Americans still see Republicans as more unbending and mean-spirited than the president. Fortunately, Mitt Romney’s gracious and generous concession speech looked good in comparison with Obama’s unaccountably delayed, utterly interminable and balefully bloviating victory ode, which left no platitude (or stomach) unturned.
This contrast marks a worthwhile beginning in addressing the emotional basis for the crippling gender gap, and assuring the skeptical women of America that conservatives aren’t just smarter than our liberal counterparts, with better records as practical problem-solvers, but we’re also for the most part more generous and nicer. Giving the elephant a likability edge over the truculent, braying donkey can only help build the party’s popularity to appropriately elephantine proportions.