It’s been an interesting week since the elections were completed last week. Many others have weighed in with their sense of what happened and what it all means but before I do the same, I feel the need to puff my chest out a bit. I predicted that Barack Obama would be reelected. And while I may not have done it with the same mathematic certainty as that much-heralded hero of statistics, Nate Silver (and nowhere near the same amount of Internet traffic), I would like to point out that I made my prediction in January. Of 2011.
When you check my work on how I got to that answer, you will see that I should not deserve full credit. While I was overall correct in that the nomination process for the Republican Party would be messy (I think the only people in America who did not lead in the Republican primary polls at some point were President Obama, myself and Michele Bachmann), I was not quite right when I said that they would nominate someone who was at the extreme end of their party. Or was I?
Truth be told, I used to like Mitt Romney. Six years ago, when he first started running for president, he didn’t seem like a bad option: decent governor, saved the Salt Lake Winter Olympics, passed universal health care in his state, moderate. Over time, though I soured on him for a number of reasons. The biggest was all of the flip-flopping.
As someone who often has a tough time making decisions and who has on occasion felt like a flip-flopper himself, I have sympathy for those in the same boat. In fact, I don’t begrudge people just because they change their mind on something. Plenty of people do, including those in the public spotlight. Some notable Republicans have recently appeared to change their mind on various aspects of immigration reform and President Obama famously “evolved” on the topic of gay marriage. I don’t see that as a dark mark on any of them. So why do I hold it against Mitt? Probably for the same reason I held it against Hillary Clinton.
While in the world of politics every appearance and word spoken is probably politically motivated, I didn’t feel like the above examples were just to score some political points. There was some true soul-searching and an actual evolution of thought. Whereas with Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton, I started to get the feeling that they would literally say and do anything to get one more vote. They both seemed too desperate to become president. My disdain for Hillary Clinton stems back to when she started running for Senate in New York. She started going around telling people how she was always a fan of the New York Mets, this despite the fact that in previous years she had steadfastly proclaimed to be a Cubs fan, having grown up in the Chicagoland area. While on the surface this may seem to be a silly argument about fandom, it goes beyond that. Her opponent in the race for Senate had been accusing her of swooping in to New York to run for Senate and not being a real New Yorker. One of the ways that she fought against this was to apparently rewrite her personal history. And to me, if she was going to do this with something as innocuous as a baseball team, what else would she lie about?
I started to get the same desperate feel from Governor Romney over the past six years. To me, it felt like he wanted to be president, realized he lost in the primary 4 years ago by being the moderate Rockefeller Republican that he probably is deep down, so he set out trying to prove to his party how conservative he was. Which he did well enough to get his party’s nomination for president, but it would appear to have been a Pyrrhic victory. To me, the fascinating question then becomes, does a truly moderate Mitt Romney win last week’s election?
At minimum, I believe last week’s election would have been significantly closer. When it comes to the general election, Governor Romney certainly did not need to be more conservative. The base of the party was already fired up enough and had a mantra of “Anybody but Obama”, so there was no concern for mass defection there. To that end, the Romney strategy of trying to keep the focus on the economy and its reflection on the president was a great plan.
The problem is by becoming more conservative, he actually made this election about more than just the economy. It became about women’s rights and immigration and abortion and health care. All of which riled up the base of the Democratic Party. With the economy coming back slowly and the unprecedented nature of his election fading away, enthusiasm was not particularly high coming in to this election season for President Obama. But by staking out conservative positions over the past four years, he ended up counteracting his “It’s All About the Economy” strategy in the general election and his biggest strength coming into the general election, a fired-up base of his own.
But you can’t win the general election if you don’t make it through the primary. Could a moderate Mitt have gotten through the Republican primary? It certainly seems possible. In retrospect, I don’t think that he won the nomination solely by “out-conservativing” the other candidates, although not for a lack of trying. He mainly won by being the most electable of a flawed bunch and being more conservative was probably not going to influence that much. Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann eventually did themselves in. Newt Gingrich really only ever won his home state and by the time Rick Santorum became the alternative flavor of the month, he was too far behind to catch-up. It didn’t seem like Governor Romney had to go ultra-conservative to win, he just needed to go far enough to be palatable. Or go an alternative route to the nomination by using your superior funding to focusing the groundwork needed to win caucuses and then use your moderate stances to win in states that you would have no chance at in the general election like California, New York and all of New England, the home of long-lost moderate Republicans. Sure you would probably take some lumps in the South and Great Plains, but maybe by looking electable you could pick off more votes than expected, especially because the number one quality that your entire party is looking for is that you are not Barack Obama. If this strategy sounds familiar, it should for it was a lot like what Barack Obama did to secure the Democratic nomination in 2008.
In the end, the warring factions of the current Republican party had their candidate twisting in knots and made it hard for Mitt Romney to get out of his own way. While some members of the party are currently starting to point to their flawed candidate as the source of their electoral defeat, the Republican Party needs to take good look in the mirror and reassess the hand that it played in snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory. In fact, they don’t have to look in a mirror. They could just go back and watch footage of election night.
As the the night wore on and the networks began to show clips of Obama’s supporters in Chicago and Romney’s in Boston, I was struck at by the obvious differences. The gathering in Boston was shockingly and overwhelmingly white, especially compared to the crowd in Chicago, where there was a diverse group of people young and old, male and female, white, black, Asian and so many other ethnicities. A cynic might say that the Democrats only did that for television, but I would respond that it doesn’t matter or not. Whether it is actual diversity of followers or manufactured for the viewing audience, it shows that the Democratic Party is trying to appeal to a wider group of voters. And it would appear that they are winning.
You know that they are winning because during no other elections in past history would Barack Obama have had a chance at being elected. Even setting aside his race and the fact that only in the past few years would America have been willing to elect a non-white president, Barack Obama still would not have been electable in the past. This is because President Obama’s main sources of popularity resides in young people, women and minorities all of whom had been notoriously hard to get to the polls in previous elections. In 2008, Team Obama used a once in a lifetime combination of enthusiasm, hope, anti-Republican sentiment and new technologies to cobble together a voting bloc never before seen. Most people assumed that this would be a flukey, one-time thing. But 2012 showed that this new electorate is here to stay.
Right now, the Republican Party is in trouble and the next four years are going to be very difficult for them. In the end, it wasn’t just the jettisoning of Moderate Mitt that lost this election for the Republicans. A reliance on “unskewed” polls that were actually skewed and a cranky Project ORCA also did them in, among other things. But as a party they are going to have to come to grips with who they are and how they are going to appeal to this new electorate. The party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan will always have a place at the table because as long as there is an America, there will always be a desire for fiscal conservatism and smaller government. These are some of the key elements of our country’s founding and will continue to be a part of our fabric. But how does the party then go forward on issues other than that? It would certainly seem that becoming more conservative across the board is not the answer. It would seem that the party needs to become more inclusive, not less. The 1950’s are not coming back. Like it or not, the future is barreling towards us. To put your head in the sand and ignore these facts is pure folly. It may take more than four years for this question to be answered for the Grand Old Party (for more insight on this check out this interesting article about the historical ebb and flow of the American political landscape), but eventually these questions need to get answered or the party risks marginalization, much like the Rockefeller Republican.