A festive crowd sporting cherry-red ties and cocktail dresses packed the Republican National Committee party in downtown Washington on election night. Dry-ice smoke wafted into the room as white-gloved waiters ferried silver trays of champagne flutes and a lineup of honky-tonk singers graced the stage. Ronnie McDowell performed his 1981 hit “Older Women,” and the theme song from the 1970s hit sitcom All in the Family. The audience cheered as he sang, “Those were the days!”
Hours later, as the election returns crested toward what one despondent political operative would later call a “tsunami,” the crowd and the mood were sinking. The lights were coming up. The smoke was gone. People clustered in small groups, nursing tumblers of scotch and gin and staring at the television screen as Fox News called one swing state after another for President Obama. The blind 69-year-old country music legend Ronnie Milsap launched into “In the Still of the Night,” replacing the chorus with “I’m lost in the 50s tonight. Somebody help me. I’m lost in the 50s tonight.”
By the end of the evening, as the vote tallies showed that minorities, women, and young people had overwhelmingly rejected Republican nominee Mitt Romney, it was clear that the Grand Old Party needed to wake up from its nostalgia trip.
“Republicans are a Mad Men party in a Modern Family America,” Republican consultant Matthew Dowd posted on Twitter the next day. “They need to adapt to 21st-century country and demography.”
As Republicans confront continued Democratic control of the White House and the Senate, even as the economy continues to sputter, the nation’s changing demographics are dominating the soul-searching and second-guessing that typically consume the losing party. Romney’s resounding defeat at the hands of the first African-American president—despite a 20-point margin of victory among white voters—starkly illustrates the party’s unhealthy dependence on a shrinking voting bloc.
But the Republican Party’s challenges are bigger than demography. Voters widely viewed the GOP ticket as championing the haves over the have-nots, after a torrent of attack ads that accused Romney of shipping jobs overseas, dodging taxes, and reducing government aid to the poor and the elderly. In exit polls, 53 percent of respondents said that the former corporate executive would favor the rich; only 34 percent said his policies would help the middle class.
It all adds up to a Republican Party in danger of becoming an outdated brand favored mostly by rich, old, white men. To expand the party’s reach and build new, winning coalitions, GOP leaders say, candidates have to develop a message that appeals to the more homogenous, conservative primary electorate as well the broader and increasingly diverse general-election audience. The party has a lot to learn from the Obama campaign’s unprecedented turnout operation, which pushed even casual supporters to the polls.
“We are not nearly as advanced today as the Democrats. That has got to change and change fast,” said Sara Fagen, a top adviser to President George W. Bush’s reelection campaign, which set the bar for Hispanic outreach by a GOP nominee. “No one thought all these young people and unmarried women and Hispanics would turn out for Obama, yet they did; and that, to me, is a result of their machinery.”
The white share of the electorate dropped 2 percentage points since the 2008 election, and the Hispanic community increased its share by 1 point. Romney pulled in 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to exit polls—the worst showing by a Republican nominee since Bob Dole in 1996. But not a surprising one. Desperate to outflank his more conservative rivals in the Republican primary, Romney condemned popular Dream Act legislation that would legalize children brought here illegally if they attend college or serve in the military, and he callously suggested “self-deportation” as a remedy in a nationally televised debate.
That Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the electorate and a key swing vote in several toss-up states was well-known within the Romney campaign. That Republican opposition to immigration reform helped Democrats increase their appeal in the Hispanic community and take back the House in 2006 was also well established. Yet Romney’s team cultivated an unswerving belief that the torpid economy would sink Obama under its own weight and depress Latino support, even after the administration ordered temporary visas for Dream Act students.
Demographics—and Obama’s superior political machine—won the day. Republicans who have been sounding the alarm for years are wondering if Tuesday’s election will finally resonate as a clarion call.
“If we as Republicans had moved just a few percentage points of the Hispanic vote in states like Florida, Ohio, Colorado, and Virginia, it could have thrown the election to Romney,” said former Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, a Cuban-American and past chairman of the Republican National Committee who fought for sweeping immigration reform. “This is not a choice. It’s either extinction or survival.”
LOOKING FOR HELP
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a perennial draft choice for president, is one of the few Republican figures with strong credentials in both conservative and Hispanic circles. It wasn’t until the homestretch of the race that Romney softened his tone on immigration and aired ads promising “to achieve permanent solutions for undocumented youth.” Former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who also served on the ticket’s Hispanic advisory board, said, “It is absolutely ridiculous that we force a candidate to be so far to the right, and then in the general election, they have to move to the center. The people who are running the show, the so-called base who is writing the platforms, are the extreme Right.”
One advantage for the party seeking the Hispanic community’s good graces is a stable of high-powered, Spanish-speaking elected officials, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida; Govs. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada; and newly elected Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Rubio, also viewed as a top contender for the nomination in 2016, said in a statement responding to the election, “The conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it, and Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them.”
Romney and his allies were vastly outspent on Spanish-language advertising; one media tracking source estimated they spent $8.6 million while Obama and Democratic groups invested at least $14.6 million. This is not uncharted territory for Republicans; President Bush made inroads with Hispanic voters with uplifting ads that touted his party’s shared values. But airing more ads and talking more politely to Hispanic voters isn’t enough, said Terry Nelson, who served as Bush’s political director in his 2004 campaign. Bush’s outreach was backed up by policies that would have allowed illegal immigrants to earn citizenship.
“There’s room for improvement in our efforts on Spanish-language radio and television, but, fundamentally, we have to address the policy issues or it’s going to be difficult to compete for votes in this community,” Nelson said.
An ImpreMedia/Latino Decisions poll on the eve of the election found that 74 percent of Hispanics thought Romney didn’t care or was outwardly hostile to the Latino community. Sixty percent said they knew undocumented immigrants. The economy and job creation was the top issue, followed by immigration reform, education, and health care.
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who won his Senate bid on Tuesday, sponsored an immigration-reform bill, but he was forced to abandon his stance when the party’s base raised objections. In a debate with his Hispanic Democratic opponent, Richard Carmona, last month, Flake said, “We beat our head against the wall and came to realize in the end that until we had a secure border nobody will trust the government [to fix immigration].... That’s a pragmatism. Sometimes, in a wash, you have to take half a loaf. You just can’t take an ideological position and run with it.”
Part of the GOP’s challenge in nominating a candidate with more-moderate positions on issues such as immigration is that the Republican primaries are dominated by white, religious voters. Self-conscious about his previous support for abortion rights and gay rights, Romney was anxious to toe the party line in the 2012 campaign.
“We need someone who can stand up to the angry voices in our party,” said Martinez, who served on Romney’s Hispanic advisory board and emphasized that he was not criticizing the nominee.
Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a leading Republican voice against immigration reform in Congress, rejected the notion that the issue offered the party a pathway to the Hispanic vote. “That’s a Democratic Party tactic, to divide people down the lines of race for political gain,” King said. “What we have to make clearer is our opposition to debt and deficits and that borrowing against our children’s future is immoral. I don’t think we need to become more like liberals.”
King is not alone in the postelection debate about the party’s direction. While some leaders are calling for a more mainstream agenda, others are arguing that the party needs to adopt an even stricter posture on fiscal and social issues. The Tea Party Patriots this week called Romney “a weak, moderate candidate, handpicked by the Beltway elites and country-club establishment of the Republican Party.” Concerned Women for America President Penny Nance said in a statement, “The Republicans’ insistence in unilateral disarming on social issues means that only the Left is discussing abortion and marriage. Refusing to discuss this important issue left their candidates unprepared to intelligently engage on life.”
But the failure of Republicans to secure two winnable Senate seats belies that logic. Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana fell short amid fierce criticism of comments they made about rape and abortion. Democrats pilloried Romney for not denouncing Mourdock and for opposing government funding for Planned Parenthood and Obama’s initiative to require employee health insurance plans to cover birth control. The attacks seemed to work. Women voters favored Obama 55 percent to 43 percent. The gender gap was even wider among unmarried women, who preferred Obama by more than 2-to-1.
Indeed, Akin’s and Mourdock’s woes revealed a problem larger than Romney. The GOP lost Senate seats in Massachusetts, Maine, and Indiana, and Senate Democrats won closely contested races in North Dakota, Montana, Virginia, and Wisconsin. In an election in which Republicans were gunning to take control of the Senate, Democrats increased their majority by two seats.
“I thought this was going to be a 50-50 race, and instead it was a tsunami,” said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union. “The losses across the country in federal and state races—it’s a tsunami that none of us expected. There are glaring demographic shifts in this country that will not allow the Republican Party to compete unless immediate attention is paid.”
This article appeared in print as "Color Scheme."
This article appears in the November 10, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.