The Republican path forward

The GOP doesn’t need to change for 2016

I’m usually skeptical of claims made by party faithfuls who, in the aftermath of losing an election, claim that no ideological adjustments are necessary to win the next election. When Kerry was defeated by Bush, I rolled my eyes as the surviving liberal rump of the Democratic Party blamed their loss on a lack of partisan purity. Similarly, I rolled my eyes when 2009 Republicans said the path forward was a return to conservative principles. To me, in both instances, the remedy for electoral losses was a simple application of median voter politics: moving toward the middle yields more victories than retreating to extremes. A bitter medicine for those who belong to those extremes, perhaps, but Hippocrates would recommend no other.

In the wake of the 2012 elections, I have come to the opposite conclusion. If the Republican party changes nothing in the next four years, it will still enjoy excellent chances of taking the White House.

In very small part, this is because my move-to-the-middle prescription for losing parties has been defied by the evidence of the past decade. Democrats made large gains in 2006 and 2008 even as they refused all compromise and obstructed much of Bush’s agenda. Republicans succeeded similarly in 2010 by running a slate of Tea Party ideologues.

But for the most part, Republicans can safely shrug off this election because it is plainly different than the sea changes we witnessed in the previous three elections. The media has been quick to diagnose Republicans as victims of shifting demographics, and claim that their party is in decline because of a growing population of Hispanics and other Democratic constituencies. But demography is not destiny, at least not yet. This was not the sort of rebuke that Republicans received at the end of Bush’s second term. Nor was this the sort of rebuke that Democrats received in the 2010 midterm elections. Four hundred and thirty-five seats were up for grabs in the House of Representatives, and Republicans looked set to win almost as many as they had before. Do the pundits panicking over the GOP’s prospects think that Latino voters came out to the polls for the president, but did not bother to vote in house races? The Senate remained more or less unchanged as well, and in those races we do not see much evidence of demography flipping the outcome. In Indiana and Missouri, the GOP ran particularly poor candidates who weren’t just bad at appealing to a new electorate, but any electorate. And in North Dakota and Montana (states that Nate Silver, hallowed be his name, incorrectly predicted would go red), Democrats won by running as far away from President Obama as their voting record would let them. Technically, Democrats didn’t even take the Republican senate seat in Maine — the winner, Angus King, ran as a true independent. This is not a Democratic majority that has any sort of grand, progressive agenda.

This isn’t to say that Republicans shouldn’t soften their message on social issues, or defer more to their pro-business wing when voting on immigration. There’s no reason for the party to throw away free votes. But the media’s claim that this election was about a changing American electorate is utterly false. In 49 of 50 states, self-identified conservatives still outnumber self-identified liberals — only in our own little bubble of Massachusetts is the opposite true. America remains a center-right country, with no eminent change on the horizon — if anything, the past few years have seen a sharp increase in those identifying themselves as conservative.

So what happened? If it was not young, female minorities that did Romney in, then what did?

Barack Obama was a particularly strong candidate. He consistently out-polled his own party, retaining his favorability even as Democrats lost theirs. Mitt Romney was a particularly weak candidate — not because of a purist ideology (if anything the charge against him was that he had no ideology), but because his biography, his personality, and his political record left him vulnerable. During the primaries, Republicans spent months casting for anyone — anyone but the boring, flip-flopping Mormon. But alas, Romney faced no serious challenger in the primaries, even though many were available.

The president enjoyed almost all of the advantages of incumbency and none of its drawbacks. While in office, he was able to buy the votes of Midwest swing states with a public giveaway to car manufacturing corporations and their organized union workforce. Meanwhile, the weaknesses in the president’s record were off-limits: Republicans tapped a man almost uniquely unable to mount an attack on either the issue of healthcare (because of his record as a governor), or Obama’s early term bank bailouts (due to his background in private equity).

The campaign became exactly the sort that both Republicans and challengers wish to avoid. It was an election focused almost wholly on the economy, offering Romney little opportunity to highlight national security issues where the Republican brand has strength. Meanwhile, Obama out-funded his challenger and ran one of the most negative campaigns in U.S. political history — the standard recipe for retaining the status quo.

Anonymous over 11 years ago

A weak assessment of the election from Keith Yost. Here are a few points that deserve rebuttals:

1. Keith Yost glossed over GOP's demographic crisis by citing the House votes. "Republicans looked set to win almost as many as they had before", Yost wrote. But what Keith Yost did not realize is that the Democratic house candidates received more votes than their Republican counterparts. The only reason GOP still holds the House majority is because of clever Gerrymandering and little else. In PA, for example, the GOP captured 13 seats to Dems' 5 seats, despite the fact the Dems received more votes.


2. Keith Yost argued that "the medias claim that this election was about a changing American electorate is utterly false" because "America remains a center-right country" at least based on liberal/conservative self-identification. While this is true only if you make the assumption that everyone is an ideologue like Keith Yost, but even then he failed to tell you that the GOP is no longer a center-right party. What kind of center-right party nominates people like Akin and Mourdock to run for senate seats? And before that Angle and O'Donnell? Yost was dishonest when he wrote they appeal to "no electorate", they actually appealed to one: the GOP base. If nothing changes, we can expect the GOP base to continue nominating more people like Akin and Mourdock to challenge moderate Dems, essentially guaranteeing GOP losses.

3. Yost wrote Obama "out-funded" Romney in the election. While this is technically true, it is misleading. Yost willfully ignored the contribution of pro-Romney super PACS like American Crossroads. According to data from OpenSecrets, Romney outspent Obama by almost 100 millions.


4. Yost wrote Obama "ran one of the most negative campaigns in U.S. political history". It is not clear to me when did the GOP turned into a bunch of crybabies, but again, it is clear that in Yost's alternative reality super PACS like American Crossroads and Restore Our Future don't exist. These PACS ran some of the most negative ads for the GOP.


In conclusion, the GOP would benefit from a more thoughtful analysis on why it lost Election 2012. An excuse-seeking article like Yost's will not do the trick.

Darryl Williams over 11 years ago

I came to make most of the rebuttals posted above. You can sign my name to them in accord.

Anonymous over 11 years ago

Same, #2. I'm appalled by this piece's lack of research and disconnect from reality.

Keith Yost over 11 years ago

1) A facile analysis. Democrats won the "House Popular Vote" nationwide by what, 500,000 votes? Meanwhile, Republicans had five more of their candidates go completely unopposed than did Democrats. At 300,000 voters per district, these unopposed candidates would only have had to win by a 67-33 margin to even out the popular vote nationally. An easy task-- I'd be surprised if they didn't win by even larger margins than that. So no, taking the popular vote numbers in house races doesn't show a persisting Democratic advantage, it shows a slight Republican one, consistent with the outcome of the House of Representatives results. It was not just gerrymandering-- if we scrutinize the vote very closely, we'd likely find generic Republicans slightly ahead of generic Democrats in the 2012 election.

You cherry-pick Pennsylvania as an example of excessive gerrymandering, but I could just as easily cherry pick states with Democratic governors to make the same claim. And sometimes, I don't even need to do that. Montana has 450,000 voters and only one house seat. Our federal system is a sort of gerrymandering all on its own, and sometimes it's even rougher than what happens on a state level-- in the case of Montana, it gave 450000 people the same voice in the House as 300000 people.

So no, your crude math doesn't disprove anything.

2) So let me get this straight-- you think, over time, the definition of conservative has become even more conservative than it was before, that there has been some ideological shift where today's so-called conservatives are actually very conservative, and today's so-called liberals are actually moderates, and you think it is GOOD news for your side that even as this shift has been occurring, more people are identifying themselves as conservative? Good luck in the elections, bro.

3) Maybe instead of OpenSecrets, you should use the New York Times. Just saying, your source is wingnutso and mine is the nation's paper of record.

4) A negative campaign does not a mandate yield. 85 percent of Obama's ad buys were negative, a large fraction even by modern standards. The only mandate Obama's campaign delivered was that Obama's name is not Mitt Romney. It says little about ideology, and your argument about how the GOP ran a negative campaign in no way rebuts this point.

In conclusion, stop reading HuffPo, MotherJones, OpenSecrets et al for your news, else 2016 will be good for me.

Anonymous over 11 years ago

1) Keith Yost gives us a good demonstration on what is fuzzy math. Fortunately, Sam Wang from the Princeton Election Consortium has given us an analysis showing that statistically there is demonstrably a structural disadvantage to Democrats at House elections. So the answer is no, we would not find "generic Republicans slightly ahead of generic Democrats in the 2012 election".


2) Let's give Keith Yost the breakdown on conservative/liberal self identification. According to Gallup in 2012, the breakdown is 40 conservative, 35 moderate, and 21 liberal. So yes, the GOP is indeed becoming more conservative, but it also means they are appealing to that 40 block of voters and ceding the moderates to the Dems. The data from Gallup do not support Yost's claim that liberals are becoming moderates. They show instead a small portion of the moderates moving to the conservative column. But hey, why argue over polls? No one forced the GOP to nominate Akin and Mourdock, the GOP base did that all by itself. Good luck in Election 2016, indeed.

Here is another thing Yost didn't want you to know. Usually slightly more people identify as Dems than Repubs.

3) Ah yes, if you can't argue against the numbers, pound the table. Open Secret is regularly cited in mainstream media, including NYT


4) I'm not sure where in the world does Keith Yost get the idea "A negative campaign does not a mandate yield." (if that is true, no office holder these days would have a mandate to do anything). Wrong, Mr. Yost. Getting thee over 50 does a mandate yield. And Obama did it, at a larger margin than Bush 2004 too. Actually, while we're on the subject, you don't even need 50 to do whatever (Bush 2000, anyone?); the "mandate" is just political bullshittery and Keith Yost knows it.

In conclusion, Keith Yost should read HuffPo (I know he does anyway). It had a better Election 2012 than the Weekly Standard, the NRO, and that "unskewed poll" guy.

Anonymous over 11 years ago

The link to Gallup's liberal/conservative self-identification:


Anonymous over 11 years ago

Explanation to Sam Wang's House election prediction, this one is more detailed than the link I provided earlier: