Why Did the Republicans Lose? Conservative Experts Air Their Thoughts

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“When we look at what we have to face, it is not a hopeless picture,” said Henry Olsen, director of the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) National Research Initiative, at a panel discussion held Thursday in Washington, D.C. “But it is not a pretty one.” 

Republican logoOlsen was one of three roundtable participants for the AEI’s 2012 election wrap-up session, which also included “Almanac of American Politics” co-author Michael Barone and Norman J. Ornstein, author of the 2012 book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.”

Discussion moderator Karlyn Bowman, senior AEI fellow and columnist for Forbes.com, began the event by citing the influence of minorities on determining the outcome of this year’s presidential election. Hispanics, Asians and especially African-Americans -- a demographic, she said, that cast 90 percent of their votes for incumbent Barack Obama -- all leaned heavily towards Democrats in 2012, with a majority of female voters, across all racial and ethnic demographics, favoring Obama over Republican challenger Mitt Romney. According to Bowman, the rift between married voters and unwed voters was apparent, as voters with spouses tended to lean Republican while single or unmarried voters tended to vote Democratic.

Barone said that, with Florida tabulated in favor of Obama, the incumbent will eventually walk away with a 50-48 advantage in the popular vote, with an electoral vote advantage tilting in his favor, 322-206. 

“There’s a certain structural Democrat advantage,” Barone said, in the nation’s electoral college. Due to large urban accumulations, he said that Democratic candidates “have a bigger hunting ground” come election time.

He compared this year’s election to the results of presidential elections in both 1996 and 2004, noting that while both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush won by larger margins in their re-election bids than they did during their first campaigns, Obama’s margin will likely decline from 53 percent in 2008 to either 50 or 51 percent once this year’s votes are completely tallied.

Barone said that President Obama’s “firewall strategy,” which focused on the swing states of Florida, Ohio and Virginia, accounted for more than 60 electoral points. Had Obama not secured all three states, Barone said, the president would have ended up with only 272 electoral points -- just two points over the essential 270 threshold in order to win the election.

“It’s a classic example of a high-risk strategy,” Barone said.

While Democrats maintain a majority in the Senate, he believes that the Republicans losing just six seats in the House of Representatives was a “minimal” setback. He recalled 1990, when he said the Republicans had a “lock” on both the Oval Office and the Senate, while Democrats were almost assured control of the House. Today, Barone, said, that entire dynamic seems to have switched.

“I think the Republicans face challenges,” he said, “but not doom.”

“It is really not a good idea to ignore facts,” said Olsen. 

He predicts that the overall share of non-Caucasian voters, as well as the overall share of female voters, are destined to increase. Republicans, he said, cannot do anything about this demographics change, and advised conservatives to foster stronger senses of inclusion, especially among Hispanic and Asian voters. 

Olsen called Obama’s campaign strategy “brutal in its covert message,” saying that the president’s team capitalized on the conceptualization that both Romney and the GOP’s agenda was “he and they are not running for you.” He said Obama’s campaigners turned the election into a battle of values, with strategists shaping topics like contraception access and immigration reform into key issues that swung many female and Hispanic voters towards the president.

Olsen brought up the results of an exit poll, in which a majority of voters stated that they felt Obama was the more empathetic of the two candidates. The Republican challenger’s inability to reverse this, Olsen said, is “the reason why Mitt Romney is not president today.”

“We’ve all been wrong at times,” said Ornstein. He said that he was surprised that Democrats gained two net seats in the Senate this year, attributing the GOP’s failure to win both Houses as instances of “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”

Ornstein said that the Republican Party is currently being steered by a wing that’s not conservative, but radical. “The state legislative chambers are becoming more radicalized than what we’re seeing on the national level,” he stated.

With Democrats holding both the Oval Office and the Senate, Ornstein said, Republicans will have to develop new strategies to win back seats in the 2014 midterms.

“Your willingness to compromise on these critical issues,” he said, “may become compromised.”

Ornstein said that Republicans like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are “a group of problem solvers that have been waiting to bust out.” How the Republicans handle this winter’s “fiscal cliff” -- in which, pending a lack of bipartisan intervention, mandatory spending cuts are expected to go into effect while taxes simultaneously increase -- may drastically improve the GOP’s chances come 2014, he said.

An across-the-aisle effort that results in tax reform could prove pivotal for the Republicans, he believes. “We’ve heard the American people plea for us to finally get together,” stated Ornstein. He said that both an upcoming farm bill and a cyber security bill may serve as a “template” for addressing this winter’s “fiscal cliff.”

Echoing Olsen’s comments, Ornstein said that if the Republicans wish to rebound in two years, they will have to start branching out to minority voters. He believes the results of the election have created “fertile ground for an immigration bill,” adding “if we don’t reach out in a different way, we’re in terrible shape.”