Almost a month has passed since Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential election, but the finger pointing continues.
Some Republicans charge that Romney was a flawed candidate, while others insist the party’s image was a drag on the ticket.
The White House / Getty Images
Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney shakes hands with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office November 29, 2012 in Washington, DC.
There’s the argument that the Romney campaign was outmaneuvered by the Obama effort, versus the belief that the country’s changing demographics ultimately doomed the former Massachusetts governor.
And then there’s the opinion of Romney chief strategist Stuart Stevens, who suggested that Republicans shouldn’t be pointing fingers at all.
But as the party begins looking ahead to the next presidential contest in 2016 and tries to learn from the lessons of November, the explanation for Romney’s loss is perhaps much simpler: all of the above.
“You win and lose as a team,” Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, said in an interview on MSNBC last week. “We have to look at everything we do -- from logistics to turnout to technology to message to tone.”
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Indeed, top Republican strategists interviewed for this article attribute Romney’s defeat to a combination of factors, including the candidate’s inability to better define himself, the Republican Party’s unpopularity, the country’s changing demographics and a campaign whose tactics seemed stuck in the 20th century.
Blaming the messenger and the message
There's an adage in American politics: Don't allow your opponent to define you before you define yourself.
But that's exactly what happened to Romney and his campaign, especially when it came to his business background.
Through television advertisements, its surrogates, and conference calls with reporters, the Obama camp and its allies portrayed Romney as an out-of-touch multi-millionaire who made his fortune, in part, by taking over companies that later laid off employees or cut their benefits.
One of the chief examples: “Mitt Romney made over $100 million by shutting down our plant and devastated our lives,” a man said in a TV ad by the pro-Obama Super PAC Priorities USA Action. “Turns out that when we built that stage [to announce the company moves], it was like building my own coffin, and it just made me sick.”
Yet Romney’s campaign didn’t mount much of a defense -- particularly on the TV airwaves -- beyond arguing that such attacks smeared free enterprise. In fact, just a fraction of the ads aired by the Romney campaign and its allies portrayed the GOP candidate in a positive light.
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“They did very, very little to prevent or defensively rebut the image Democrats put out there of Romney as the guy who laughed all the way to the bank with the mega-millions he made buying up companies and laying you/your dad/your brother off,” said one Republican consultant who requested anonymity to speak more candidly.
“There were voters there who should have voted for the Republican, but were never going to get behind Romney because of this perception. And that was predictable from the primary stage of the campaign."
What’s more, that perception of Romney was only reinforced by his infamous “47 percent” comment, the scrutiny over the release of his tax returns, and even his campaign's message, which seemed more targeted to entrepreneurs and business owners -- rather than teachers, firefighters or factory workers.
“We will champion small businesses, America’s engine of job growth,” Romney said at the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla. “That means reducing taxes on business, not raising them. It means simplifying and modernizing the regulations that hurt small business the most.”
What was the eventual result?
While the Romney campaign’s Stuart Stevens observes that exit polls showed the former Massachusetts governor winning a majority of voters from households earning $50,000 or more, Obama beat Romney by 10 points (53 percent to 43 percent) on the question of which candidate was more in touch with people like you.
In addition, 53 percent said Romney’s policies would favor the rich (versus just 10 percent who said the same about Obama). And the Republican candidate’s favorable/unfavorable score was 47 percent/50 percent (compared with Obama’s positive 53 percent/46 percent).
“At the end of the day, messenger and message matters in American politics,” said a Republican strategist who also requested anonymity.
But it wasn't just Romney who was unpopular; so was his party.
In one of the final NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls before the election, just 36 percent of registered voters said they had a positive opinion about the Republican Party, versus 43 percent who held a negative view.
By comparison, the Democratic Party’s favorable/unfavorable rating in that same late October NBC/WSJ poll was in positive territory, at 42 percent/40 percent.
In fact, the last time the GOP’s favorable/unfavorable rating wasn’t below water in the survey was back in Dec. 2010 – two years ago.
And during that time span, the party endured negative headlines involving its politicians and candidates. Consider:
- The GOP presidential candidates engaged in about 20 debates, with them often trying to prove who was more conservative on social issues, immigration, taxes and foreign policy
- In Feb. 2012, Virginia’s GOP-controlled General Assembly passed legislation requiring transvaginal ultrasounds for those wanting an abortion in the state.
- In August, Missouri Senate nominee Todd Akin explained his opposition to abortion in cases of rape, saying that pregnancies are rare. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
- And in October, about two weeks before Election Day, Indiana Senate nominee Richard Mourdock said this while justifying his opposition to abortion, even in the case of rape: “I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen." Both Akin and Mourdock lost their Senate contests.
What’s more, problems with the Republican Party’s brand go beyond what took place in the last two years. According to the exit polls from last month’s election, 53 percent of voters blamed George W. Bush more for the country’s current economic problems. Just 38 percent blamed Obama.
Then there’s the GOP’s problem with Latino voters. While Romney’s poor performance with that demographic has received plenty of attention -- he won just 27 percent of these voters -- the party as a whole isn’t faring much better.
In an October NBC/WSJ/Telemundo survey of Latino voters, only 22 percent held a positive view of the GOP (compared with 63 percent who did for the Democratic Party).
And by a 65 percent to 23 percent margin, Latino voters in that same poll said they preferred a Democratic-held Congress to a Republican-held one.
"The party has got to learn from this,” said GOP strategist Liz Mair. “We've now had two successive presidential elections and two midterms where the party's stance on issues that are important to Hispanics has hurt us in key areas."
And the GOP finds itself trailing on key issues – some of which are pillars of today’s Republican Party.
According to the exit polls from the election, a combined 59 percent of voters said that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Sixty percent said that taxes should be increased either for all or for income above $250,000.
The good news for the GOP on the issues: A plurality of voters favored repealing some or all of the 2010 health care law, and a majority said the government is doing too many things that are better left to businesses and individuals.
Demography is destiny
Despite his inability to better define himself and despite his party’s unpopularity, Romney won white voters by a whopping 20 points, 59 percent to 39 percent -- higher than any presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
As Republican pollster Glen Bolger points out, Romney also won white women (by 14 points points) and independents (by 5 points), better than a victorious George W. Bush did in 2004.
But Romney still lost in last month’s election – and by a more decisive margin than Democrat John Kerry did in that ’04 election.
The reason for this: the country’s demographics have changed.
As the Obama campaign had long assumed, the white portion of the electorate this year dropped to 72 percent -- from 74 percent in 2008 and 77 percent in 2004 -- and the president won fewer than four in 10 of those voters.
Yet he carried a whopping 93 percent of black voters (representing 13 percent of the electorate), 71 percent of Latinos (representing 10 percent), and 73 percent of Asians (3 percent).
What’s more, despite all the predictions that youth turnout would be down, voters ages 18-29 made up 19 percent of the voting population -- up from 18 percent four years ago -- and Obama took 60 percent from that group.
“So, if you win the swing groups but lose the election, that means the Democrats have a clear home field advantage,” Bolger writes. “There are more Democrats.”
“That underscores that we have to do better as a party with Hispanics … It’s simple math, but it’s hard to do. We have to start today.”
Romney even acknowledged that reality at a closed-door fundraiser in April overheard by NBC News. "We have to get Hispanic voters to vote for our party," he said, warning back then that polling showing Latinos breaking in huge percentages for Obama "spells doom for us."
‘A late 20th century campaign’
The GOP also has to start today regaining a tactical advantage in presidential campaigns, Republicans say.
Whether it was its advertising, its polling or its get-out-the-vote effort, the Romney campaign paled in comparison to the Obama juggernaut.
"The Republicans basically ran a late 20th century campaign," said one advertising expert.
A case in point was ad buying. Even though the Romney campaign and GOP outside groups outspent the Obama camp and its allies in ad dollars, the Obama campaign still was able to run more advertising spots.
That was possible in part because the Obama camp bought its ads in advance -- often at a discount rate -- while the Romney effort was buying them the week before and not getting the discount.
For instance, in the last week of the election, a single advertising spot on the 5:00 p.m. local news in Raleigh, N.C., cost the Obama campaign $550 (because it was purchased in advance), while a spot on the same program cost the Romney camp $2,665 (because it was bought the week of).
So the Romney campaign here paid four times as much for the same programming slot, a practice which in the long run negated any kind of financial advantage it enjoyed.
Another example was the placement of those TV ads. One of the contributing factors why Romney lost big among Latino voters was that the Obama campaign outspent the Romney camp on Spanish-language TV by nearly 2-to-1 (and the margin was even greater during the summer).
And finally, there's the reality that the Obama campaign's ground game was more sophisticated than the one from the Republican Party.
“Future discussions about voter contact need to fit the times,” said Republican political consultant Phil Musser, who worked on Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign and Tim Pawlenty’s 2012 primary effort.
“Traditional door knocks and robo-calls are important, but are not what major donors want to hear about,” he added, referring to constant GOP references about the number of doors volunteers had knocked during the campaign. “They want to hear that our strategies reflect the more comprehensive, bottom-up, digital approach that the Obama campaign clearly excelled at.”
Of course, one of the big reasons for the Obama campaign's tactical advantage was its head start -- incumbents (especially those who don't face a primary challenge) simply have more time to prepare for the general election.
"Having four years to plan for an election is incredibly beneficial," said a Republican strategist who worked on the Romney campaign.