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In the wake of the 2022 midterm elections, there have been calls from many key elements of the un-elected Republican party establishment – the elements which exist in think tanks, the media, and among major donors – to end the post-2015 “experiment” with conservative populism and presumably return to running “normal” Republicans, by which they seem to mean the Romney/Ryan wing who lost in 2008 and 2012.
There are countless criticisms that can be made about the performance of the Republican Party over the last six years, both electorally and in government. But debates must be comparative to have meaning. Instead, the discourse is taking place in a vacuum, where “year one” is presumably 2016 or 2015, when Donald Trump descended the escalator in Trump Tower to announce his campaign for President. What came before that is not discussed.
This selective amnesia is useful for many of those who are now speaking up because it allows them to avoid reckoning with the same sort of self-examination of their own past failures they now call for the party to undertake. One reason why the Republican Party is even in a position to discuss the impact of the Dobbs decision on the midterms is that a majority-conservative Supreme Court existed to make that decision, something which was almost unthinkable in 2016 when everyone, including Republican Senators who held up Merrick Garland’s nomination for the Court, expected Hillary Clinton to win the election. This is not to say that the GOP is not suffering adverse consequences from things it has done, but these are consequences of its successes, not continued failure.
This was not a debate anyone expected to have in 2012. That was the year of Barack Obama’s reelection, in which journalists and other analysts could credibly claim that there might never be another Republican president due to shifting demographics. Obama seemed to have formed a solid coalition, one which was ironically stronger in the Electoral College than in the country at large. In 2012, Obama won the tipping point state by more than 6% while winning the popular vote by 4%. If the flaw of Obama’s coalition was low turnout in midterm years, then that was something Democrats intended to bypass when they finally took control of the U.S. Supreme Court, which their supposed stranglehold on the presidency made only a matter of time.
Instead, the Republican Party’s recent performance is now being rated against a different, almost impossible standard. Critics of Donald Trump are quick to argue that the Republican Party has “lost” three elections in a row (2018, 2020, 2022), but it could just as easily be said that the party overperformed expectations in 2018 and 2020 and to the extent they “lost” 2022, it was only in not meeting expectations that were impossible given the party’s relative success in every election since 2014.
That year, the GOP, of course, took the House and Senate. Two years later, they held both chambers of Congress and picked up the White House despite a widespread expectation among not just pollsters but both parties that the Democrats would sweep all three. Then in 2018, the GOP expanded its Senate majority with two pickups in a midterm year and won key governorships, including Florida, Georgia, and Texas. While Republicans lost the House, the margin was narrower than in 2006 or 2008.
In 2020, the GOP again unexpectedly gained 13 House seats and held Democratic Senate gains, widely predicted to be as many as six to two. It was this poor performance that led to Democrats abandoning their dreams of a permanent majority and flirting with a “rule or ruin” approach to governing in which they would destroy whatever institutions they could not control.
It is only against these expectations–the expectations that the Trump-era pattern of GOP overperformance of the polls would continue with the former president out of office–that the 2022 results appeared a defeat. As any Democrat gazing at the 2024 map where their best targets are North Carolina, Texas, and Florida can bemoan, “One more such ‘victory,’ and we are ruined!”
There were, of course, problems with the GOP’s performance in 2022. But they were problems inherent to the GOP’s new coalition, which is sturdier and better distributed in presidential elections but less prone to turn-out in midterms. The analysis by most mainstream outlets following this year’s elections, however, has focused on the defects of the new coalition, not its strengths.
It is tempting to pretend that the reason the exurbs have trended against Republicans since 2016 is because of one man, Donald Trump. If that is the case, all the party has to do is change faces, and magically trends will reverse themselves. This is what Democrats told themselves after 2016 when they responded to Hillary Clinton’s loss of states Obama won, such as Iowa, Ohio, and Florida, with the conviction that those states were just voting against Hillary Clinton. Once she was off the ballot, they would resume voting the way they had in 2008 and 2012. They maintained that belief through setbacks in 2018 until the 2020 results finally led them to conclude that those trends were not just a result of one candidate.
Republicans risk making the same error. Donald Trump was not merely a candidate but a coalition. His coalition was also a rejection of another coalition, that of Mitt Romney, who had sought to build a traditional center-right alliance of the successful and well-off across racial and geographical lines. The problem with the strategy was highlighted by Romney himself when he made his infamous gaffe about the “47%,” suggesting that there was a large portion of Americans who did not see themselves as “winners” in the economic and social changes sweeping the globe.
This problem was exacerbated by another. By definition, the “winners” were doing relatively well. They might have had complaints about specific ways the system was being run, but ultimately they were still doing well under the system. This was a key oversight by Mitt Romney, as he was running against an incumbent president in Barack Obama, on a platform that attempted to appeal to those who wanted more from Obama’s policies (rich professionals, hedge fund managers) while ignoring those who actually were losing (those who suffered from free trade, or unchecked immigration). It is a lesson the GOP should keep in mind when considering a pivot before 2024. Joe Biden, after all, will be an incumbent if he runs again.
The GOP should remember that its strategy in 2008 and 2012 did not work and structurally is unlikely ever to work. Arguably, the approach of attempting to form a traditional majority of the “winners” has never worked particularly well for the GOP in the post-Cold War era. It produced defeats in 1992, 1996, 2008, and 2012, one accidental win in 2000, and one win fueled by patriotic hysteria in 2004, which was far narrower than it should have been. Had 1% of voters flipped between John Kerry and George W. Bush in Ohio, Bush would have lost.
As much as the concept of an “Emerging Democratic Majority” is now mocked, it was not entirely fanciful in 2012. The error made by analysts was to assume that this was an “Emerging Democratic Majority” rather than the existing Bush GOP coalition becoming a “minority.” Quite simply, the Bush coalition, built in 2004 on winning voters in the fastest growing communities in the country, relied on a “coalition of ascendent” looking like conservatives. That meant accumulating wealth and property, which they wished to conserve, as well as families they wished to protect. Post-2008, home ownership became a more distant aspiration for millennials than for previous generations, one which became achievable only in specific geographic areas. The collapse of the Republican Party in New England and the West Coast has a number of causes, but more than any position on social issues, the fact that there are no houses to buy is a key factor. Without the ability to accumulate wealth in property, the social fabric upon which any center-right party relies ceased to exist. For all the focus on Midwesterners suffering under free trade, the difference between Colorado and Texas is the latter has reasonably affordable homes for families.
Racial polarization was another issue. That Donald Trump and other Republicans managed to cut through racial polarization in ways antithetical to the 2012 autopsy to win unprecedented numbers of non-white voters did not mean that the electorate was not racially polarized in the 1990s and 2000s.
Before Donald Trump, the GOP, therefore, was left with a coalition that could only narrowly win national elections in unique circumstances and which was shrinking every year as home ownership and marriage declined and demographic groups Mitt Romney had written off as part of the 47% increased steadily.
The GOP’s post-2012 autopsy ignored almost all of this. It ignored any underlying economic trends or how they might be interacting with social or ethnic voting behavior. For the RNC officials conducting the autopsy, the idea that voters might be moving “left” on economic policy in response to actual changes in their standard of living or the economy was inconceivable. Social issue positions were viewed not as a product of the social environment of voters (say, that individuals who own homes in local communities are more likely to attend Church) but rather as a matter of individual preference which emerged from either. The only numbers the RNC engaged with were racial breakdowns of voting patterns. Every racial group other than “whites” was then reduced to a caricatured stereotype, and the answer to winning their votes was said to be to shift on a single issue, one which conveniently lined up with what entrenched GOP elites already wanted.
Inquiries such as the 2012 Republican autopsy are not designed to learn the truth but to produce the answers those asking the questions want to hear. The Republican National Committee was dominated by entrenched interests that were invested in the GOP’s neoconservative foreign policy and pro-corporate, pro-free trade economic policies. Any suggestion that support for endless wars in the Middle East might be a liability with voters would undermine the position of the GOP foreign policy establishment. Any conclusion which implied that support for free trade was an obstacle to the Republican Party winning the Rust Belt or that Social Security privatization was an effective Democratic boogeyman would have placed the blame for defeat squarely on the shoulders of the Romney-Ryan Republican establishment.
So instead, the inquiry started from the premise of what those who ran the party wanted to promote but was previously unable to do because the grassroots, actual GOP voters resisted. Corporate America needed amnesty, and a guest worker program and absolutely could not risk tariffs. Against all evidence, the autopsy found that Americans hated Social Security and wished for it to be privatized. Somehow, despite the flop of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s efforts to weaponize Obama’s line of “you didn’t build that,” the autopsy concluded there was some secret majority that believed globalist elites were “producers” and better than them.
In short, much like the establishment’s reaction to the 2022 midterms, the 2012 autopsy was not an autopsy at all but the product of various party elites and factions consulting each other and then announcing that what they wanted was somehow what the voters wanted, despite much evidence to the contrary. Their conclusions offered everything to Washington and nothing to America. It was not merely Republican primary voters who were offered nothing—nothing on healthcare, housing, creating future jobs, crime, or immigration. It was all other voters as well. The message the GOP establishment wanted to promote would have lost in 2016, just as it had in 2012.
In fairness to the GOP candidates other than Donald Trump, the autopsy’s flaws were so apparent that none of them seriously adopted it as a platform. But most Republicans who ran in 2016 were nonetheless products of the same Overton window. Until Donald Trump broke with the consensus in the South Carolina debate, every candidate maintained that George W. Bush had been correct to go into Iraq and that, if anything, Obama had not been aggressive enough against Syria and Russia. They all defended a college-freshman understanding of economics in which the abstract concept of free trade always made everyone richer, government spending and regulation of private companies was always bad, and the experts knew best. It was a catechism, not a platform for governing.
The GOP has problems, but they are the problems of keeping together a coalition while trying to produce a policy platform that can solve America’s problems.
The temptation is always to blame the messenger, in this case, Donald Trump. In fact, while Donald Trump’s skills as a messenger may have allowed him to change the message, the much bigger transformation was that his new message changed the party’s coalition. Moving forward, the GOP needs to either win with the Trump 2020 coalition or chose a different one. There is no magical man, not even a political star like Ron DeSantis, who can run on Mitt Romney’s message yet win Donald Trump’s voters or vice versa. We saw earlier this month that voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are willing to vote for Democrats. A pivot back to free-trade, pro-corporate, exurban, country club conservatism will merely take Republicans back to where they were in 2012: losing, and with dwindling prospects for the future.