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It all adds up to a Republican Party in danger of becoming an outdated brand favored mostly by rich, old, white men.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.”
This article appears in the November 10, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.