Three weeks after the election, Republicans are still trying to figure out what happened. For all their braggadocio about being better at economics than Democrats, the GOP and its Super PACs may have had the lowest political return on investment in American history. The rehash is still under way and fingers are pointing every which way. But as Republican pundits and politicians emerge from the wood shed, six theories for the debacle are coalescing. How did the GOP lose the White House when everything seemed so primed for victory? Take your pick.
1. The Right Wing Did Us In. The party's moderate wing has long argued that kissing up to the "mad men" on the far right would be costly. The underlying theme here is that the election was lost on the issues. Former Secretary of Commerce, Carlos Gutierrez, put it bluntly: "I think we lost the election because the far right of this party has taken the party to a place that it doesn't belong." Romney's choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate was also a nod to the Tea Party, and moderate insiders argued that it would cost the ticket women's and seniors' votes.
2. We Didn't Stick to Our Conservative Principles. Most Republicans believe that, presented effectively, their party platform has a broad populist appeal. Evangelical leader Gary Bauer argues that if Republicans had hit harder on their value issues, the three million white evangelical voters who cast a ballot in 2008 but didn't in 2012 would have defeated Obama. Others cite the success of the party's hard line conservative fiscal and social agendas in winning key swing state governor and legislative elections. This success, they argue, has allowed conservatives to cut back state spending, pass pro-life laws, and redistrict sufficiently to keep the House of Representatives safely in Republican hands. In other words, Paul Ryan should not have been muzzled during the campaign.
3. Romney Was a Bad Candidate. In late September, Romney's lack of "connection" with working class and women voters generated heavy criticism by party insiders. But with the president's help, Romney seemed to solve that problem in the first debate, reenergizing his supporters and recasting himself as a likely winner. Most Republicans were truly shocked on November 6 that they had lost. The bad candidate argument only re-emerged well after the election when in a recorded telephone conference with big donors Romney used a popular Republican post mortem explanation of Obama's victory -- that Democrats had bought off major constituencies with government "gifts," such as free contraceptives for young women (who voted heavily for Obama). This evoked the pre-debate trauma of Romney's Richie Rich "write off the 47 percent" comments.
4. We Lost the Latino and Asian Vote. The Sean Hannity Evolution version of this Latino-Asian theory is that Republicans developed an anti-immigrant image that turned off a major fraction of these two rapidly increasing electoral demographics. For Hannity and others, this overwhelmed any "natural" affinity these surging demographics might have for Republican social values and fiscal agendas and cost the party key swing states and the presidency. This theory suggests that if Republican legislators would have led on immigration reform, the party would have picked up an additional 20 percentage points of Latino and Asian votes and turn defeat into victory. The more sophisticated version is from David Brooks, who agrees that most immigrant Latinos and Asians hold core Republican values of individuality, hard work, and self-reliance, but, he argues, they also believe in government as a potential ally rather than enemy. So the party lost them on two counts: anti-immigration and Tea Party anti-government "minimalism."
5. We Were Blindsided by the "Urban Surge." Interviewed back home in Wisconsin after the election, Paul Ryan said he was surprised by "some of the turnout especially in urban areas, which gave President Obama the big margin to win this race." In Ohio, turnout among African-Americans did increase over 2008, and African-American turnout was also larger than expected (by Republicans) in many other cities. In a similar vein, some Republicans credit the urban surge to the superior Obama get-out-the-vote ground game. Other party insiders point out, however, that Obama won by fewer votes in urban counties than in 2008 in Virginia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
6. Sandy and Chris. When I asked a Republican friend if he were disappointed in the election results, he confided that when Sandy hit the East Coast, and he saw Chris Christie arm in arm with the President, he knew Romney was cooked. Sandy plus Christie allowed Obama to be both presidential and bipartisan. The October surprise could have played either way, of course. But in many Republican minds, Christie sabotaged Romney by playing opportunist, promoting his 2013 reelection. In the latest New Jersey polls, Christie's approval rating is 77 percent.
There are interlocking themes here, and in the real world they could spell more trouble than salvation for Republicans. The far right of the party is not going away. If the GOP sticks to its fiscal and social values agendas, it may mortgage its dreams for the White House for another eight years. Will the Republican right take a risk with its base and promote bipartisan immigration reform to bring back social values Latinos? Will the base nominate a presidential candidate who can promote its agenda but also connect to the new demographics? Will this be enough? Or, in Republicans' worst nightmare scenario, are the goal posts of demographics and social values moving away faster than this version of the GOP can respond?