BOSTON — Republicans were in a soul-searching mood Wednesday, pondering their political future after President Obama won a resounding victory despite the stagnant economy and an approval rating routinely south of 50 percent.
The 2012 election seemed to underscore the point many in the GOP most feared in 2008: Without improving numbers among Hispanic voters and women, and with a younger population becoming more socially liberal each year, the Republican Party risks marginalization in future presidential elections.
That leaves Republican leaders facing a paradox: how to both improve their appeal among the nation’s quickest-expanding demographics and placate the older, white voters who expect the party to advocate their interests in Congress.
Party leaders reflecting on the election’s aftermath are left to forge a platform that will be palatable to the country’s changing demographics and true to the conservative principles expected by their base.
Republicans interviewed Wednesday generally looked to downplay the notion that Obama had scored a decisive victory or a mandate for a liberal policy agenda. They noted that in a race with over 100 million votes cast, the candidates remained separated by just over 2 percentage points in the popular vote. The fact that Obama had largely shied away from declaring second-term priorities was repeatedly noted, as was the fact that Mitt Romney made significant gains from the 2008 election.
Republicans also characterized Romney as a candidate produced by a weak primary field who was vulnerable to attacks on his personal wealth and who had failed to connect with voters, a damning combination when running against a charismatic incumbent president.
But while refusing to characterize Tuesday’s election as a rejection of the Republican policy platform, strategists agreed that the party needed to re-evaluate its rhetoric, policy priorities and electoral strategies in the wake of the president’s victory.
Many argued that the area ripest for Republican reorganization was immigration reform, with a legislative package spearheaded by Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioWhat the 2016 election can tell us about 2018 midterms Fight over water bill heats up in Senate Brown-Mandel Ohio Senate race will be brutal referendum on Trumpism MORE (Fla.) and Texas Sen.-elect Ted CruzTed CruzThe Hill's 12:30 Report Cruz defends Trump's Taiwan call Ark., Texas senators put cheese dip vs. queso to the test MORE. The hope was that if Republicans could take ownership of the bill, they could both preserve restrictions to full citizenship that conservatives objected to while endearing themselves to a Hispanic electorate that broke 71 percent for Obama, according to exit polls.
“Obviously, leadership needs to do the heavy lifting here,” said American Conservative Union President Al Cardenas. “It’s just a matter of prioritizing things. I’ve talked to enough leaders in the House and Senate, and they’re willing to stake out on this.”
Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said that “if the GOP wants to succeed on the electoral map in the future, it cannot continue to be the party of old white men.”
O’Connell argues that because Democrats treated Hispanic voters as monolithic in 2012 (acknowledging Republicans did little to cater to the group at all), the GOP has the opportunity to target issues of common ground with socially conservative Mexican and Cuban voters in crucial swing states like Colorado, Virginia and Florida that broke for Obama.
“When the GOP is looking for its next wave of leaders, it should look at two regions — the Southeast and Southwest, where demographics are changing the most and party control is changing the most,” O’Connell said.
Republicans grasping for a national foothold are also likely to refine the rhetoric they employ on the campaign trail in speeches, in addressing both immigration issues and their social policies. At least two Republican Senate candidates — Rep. Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana — saw their campaigns torpedoed by comments they made regarding abortion and rape.
And while conservatives were reluctant to say the party should begin moving to the center on issues like abortion, marijuana availability or gay marriage — the latter two of which saw success at the ballot box in state initiatives on Tuesday — they did say Republicans should be more cognizant of how they discuss domestic policy.
“When your rhetoric is wrong and the talk does not make sense, it is impossible to get to the next step, which is partnering with groups on shared policy goals,” said Republican strategist Matt Schlapp.
“We have a uniquely Republican message to sell about how government doesn’t do things well,” he continued. “We’re more than comfortable talking about how that’s true for the Postal Service or IRS; we should feel comfortable about saying the same thing on immigration policy.”
Republicans also conceded that the Romney campaign operation had been outclassed by a better-funded and -organized effort in Chicago — and worried that Democrats would build on their gains while Republicans struggled to catch up. According to one source with knowledge of the Romney campaign, the candidate’s bluster and confidence in the waning days of the race was not insincere posturing; internal data showed Romney faring far better than the national polls bore out on election night.
“Our own expectations for what happened last night were wildly overrated,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “We got beat on the data side; we got beat on the ground game. That, to me, is the greater concern.”
There are signs of optimism. Republicans point to a deep bench that includes rising stars like Rubio and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, both of whom hail from swing states and underscore some of the party’s diversity. But for Republicans, addressing the total of those problems is essential to maintaining their competitiveness among a national electorate that is rapidly changing.
“We just didn’t run good enough campaigns with good enough candidates,” Mackowiak said. “We’ve got to do better.”