As hard as it is to believe, it’s been only a little over three weeks since Election Day. But there are already plenty of signs that Republicans are learning many of the wrong lessons from that debacle. For starters, there’s been a lot of excessive emphasis on racial demographics, which actually changed very little from 2008. According to exit polling, the portion of Hispanic voters went up just 1 percentage point, the portion of Asian voters went up just 1 point, and the portion of black voters stayed the same. Meanwhile, the portion of white voters fell 2 points — largely because, as Sean Trende notes, Mitt Romney failed to turn out several million such voters.
Now Senator John McCain says that, when it comes to the life-or-death matter of abortion, Republicans should “leave the issue alone.” Well, it would be hard to have left the issue any more alone than Romney did, and what did it get him? On an issue on which Americans are typically split pretty much right down the middle, exit polling showed that voters favored the legality (59 percent), rather than illegality (36 percent), of abortion in “most” or “all” cases. This suggests that Romney’s silence in the face of Obama’s pro-abortion rhetoric caused some swing voters to shift their position leftward (as people are inclined to do when they hear only one side of an issue advanced) — while millions of pro-life voters apparently sat this one out.
In truth, the Romney strategy on essentially every issue — and especially on Obamacare — could aptly be summarized as “leave the issue alone.” Even on the economy, the one issue on which the Romney camp generally seemed eager to engage, the campaign left alone the question of how we got into this mess in the first place. Relatedly, it left alone the crucially important claim that Bill Clinton made at the Democratic convention: “Listen to me now. No president, no president — not me, not any of my predecessors — no one could have fully repaired all the damage that [Obama] found in just four years.” This, of course, was ridiculous. FDR had inherited the Great Depression, and yet, in the year that he first sought reelection, real economic growth was over 13 percent — more than six times what it’s been this year under Obama.
But Romney characteristically left that one alone, and — more than three years into the Obama “recovery” — exit polling indicated that voters still blamed George W. Bush (53 percent), not Obama (38 percent), for the stagnant economy.
As a result of Romney’s failure to make the case on essentially any issue — either against Obama’s abysmal record or on behalf of his own proposals — we ended up with this very strange result: In an election pitting perhaps the most liberal president in American history against a moderate Republican who was never fully trusted by the conservative wing of his own party, likely voters polled by Pew Research less than two weeks before the election said that Obama (50 percent), not Romney (38 percent), takes the “more moderate positions.” And in an election pitting a Democratic president who rammed Obamacare through on a straight party-line vote and then spent the next two years demagoguing Republicans, versus the former Republican governor of heavily Democratic Massachusetts, likely voters in that same poll said that Obama (47 percent), not Romney (41 percent), was more “willing to work with leaders from the other party.”
As such polling suggests, Republicans didn’t lose this election because of demographics, and they didn’t lose it because of the positions they took on the issues. They lost it because they failed to make the case against Obama or on behalf of their own ideas and principles. As a result, they failed to rally independents to their side to the extent that they should have, and they failed to turn out their own base. Far from leaving key issues alone in the future, Republicans need to engage the American public on matters of importance and make their case in persuasive language.
More than anything, the debacle of 2012 should show the GOP that it can’t run a Seinfeldian campaign — a campaign about nothing. Chris Caldwell summed it up nicely in these pages: “Where two candidates argue over values, the public may prefer one to the other. But where only one candidate has values, he wins, whatever those values happen to be.”