With President Obama’s defeat of Mitt Romney, the Republican Party finds itself in the same place it was four years ago — once again coming up short in its attempt to win the most powerful office in American democracy.
It faces the inevitable soul-searching the losing party undergoes, to greater or lesser degrees, after every contest for the one office whose occupant represents the entire nation.
And how the GOP reacts could help determine its fortunes in 2016.
Initial indications from within the party — predictably enough — were that Romney’s defeat wasn’t a rejection of the Republican platform as much as a failure of the GOP standard-bearer to run a competent enough campaign to defeat a vulnerable incumbent.
That attitude was evident in the reaction of Erick Erickson, editor of the popular conservative blog RedState.com. Erickson wrote:
“The Obama campaign ran a very good campaign. The Republicans did not. There was no fraud. There was no stealing the election. There was just a really good ground game from Barack Obama and a lot of smoke and mirrors from Team Romney and outside charlatans, many of whom will now go work for Republican Super PACs making six figure salaries, further draining the pockets of rich Republicans when not on television explaining how awesome and expert they are. Whether you can bring yourself to say it or not, like it or not, Barack Obama is, today, your President.
“There will be a lot of blame to go around, but, if Republicans are honest, they’ll have to concede that the Romney campaign ran a bad campaign and only almost won because the President had a bad debate. Romney could not even win his home state [Massachusetts], his second home state [New Hampshire] or his vacation home state [Colorado].”
That the race concluded with just a narrow popular vote margin between the president and Romney allowed Republicans to avoid the kind of existential reflection that would have likely ensued if Obama had won in a popular landslide.
That didn’t stop some from predicting a Republican civil war for the soul of the Republican Party. Still, some saw an internecine fight as unlikely.
“There’ve been predictions of a Republican civil war for as long as I’ve been alive, and it really hasn’t happened,” said Philip Klinkner, a political science professor at Hamilton College.
“Part of it is that they subsume those bitter differences into organization,” Klinkner said. “So whether you’re a Tea Partier or you’re a moderate, whatever, everybody agrees, ‘We need a better fundraising apparatus.’ Everybody agrees, ‘We’ve got to have a better ground game.’ So in some ways they sublimate these conflicts with a shared strategy that focuses on their organizational goals.”
Klinkner, who in the 1990s wrote a book called The Losing Parties, which examined how each major party responded over decades to losing the White House, said Republicans have tended to react to such losses precisely by rehabbing their operational approach to campaigns. Democrats, on the other hand, have tended to pay more attention to cultivating their coalition.
That has shifted over the years somewhat to where both parties pay attention to their coalitions.
He expects Republicans will still focus on improving their infrastructure and improving tactics like voter targeting and improving the ground game.
But he also predicts Republicans will focus on finding a spokesperson who is “the best messenger for them on the television talk shows. Also, somebody who can paper over or appeal to different aspects of the Republican coalition.”
Any number of Republicans could certainly play that role, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. And it’s widely assumed that Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, might also be interested in being that party leader.
While some observers predicted Republicans would tinker with the mechanics of their party, some party officials seemed to suggest that more might be needed.
In a statement, Sen. Jon Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement:
“We had many hard-fought races tonight and I’m proud to welcome several new Republicans to the Senate, particularly my fellow Texan Ted Cruz. But it’s clear that with our losses in the presidential race, and a number of key Senate races, we have a period of reflection and recalibration ahead for the Republican Party. While some will want to blame one wing of the party over the other, the reality is candidates from all corners of our GOP lost tonight. Clearly we have work to do in the weeks and months ahead.”