What happened on Election Day and what conservatives should do
If you really want to understand how to fix something, you first have to take a realistic look at what is wrong with it.
After the 2004 election, Howard Dean wondered how the Democrats would reconnect with men who flew Confederate flags and had guns in their pickup trucks. They didn’t, but have since won two presidential elections. After 2008, the GOP was filled with hand-wringing about connecting with minority voters, but it managed to win the greatest congressional swing election in generations in 2010.
In the wake of Obama’s re-election, there is a lot of hand-wringing going on in the GOP about making changes, but not enough clear-eyed assessments of exactly what went wrong and needs to be fixed.
There are three elements to any campaign: message, money and organization. While money was obviously not a problem, attested to by the good Christmases the children of TV station owners and media consultants are about to have, our message and organization didn’t make the grade.
The decision was made to just focus on the economy to the exclusion of almost everything else, resulting in our philosophy not being effectively communicated and connected to the everyday lives of Americans.
Constantly relating the answer to any question to what you want to talk about is a great display of one of the tenants of political messaging 101, but the other tenant is to first determine what it is in your interest to talk about. Our answer to everything seemed to be, “glad you asked that, but how about that unemployment rate?”
One reason for this is we suffer from an establishment and consultant class that constantly tries to avoid having to talk about a bunch of conservative principles that they either don’t truly believe in or the media have left them too petrified to talk about.
If ever in history there has been a text book example of a liberal to run a text book ideological campaign against, it was Barack Obama. On every issue he was and is a prime example of the failed liberal philosophy – full of smug self-satisfied wisdom and knowing so much that just isn’t so.
Faced with this opportunity, the campaign focused almost exclusively on the economy, instead of framing the election as a choice between conservatism and liberalism. This is despite the fact that self-identified conservatives outnumber liberals by more than two to one. What a waste.
Exit polls showed that fifty-three percent of voters said that “government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals”, yet Obama wins? This isn’t a statistic that says we were too conservative, or that we got our message across very well.
This lack of a focus on an applied conservative message was compounded when the campaign didn’t respond to Obama’s summer of negative attacks. Too many voters didn’t have enough of a reason to vote “for” Romney, and Obama gave them reasons to vote “against” him. (Note to future GOP candidates: when someone runs TV ads accusing you of killing some guy’s wife, fight back)
Then there’s the third element of any campaign, organization.
For all of the fretting about Republican pollsters who got it wrong when it came to predicting “who” was going to vote, the ultimate answer to that question rests a great deal with the effectiveness of the campaign. If one does a bad job, and the opposition does a good job of getting out the vote on Election Day, the numbers are bound to look different when the votes are tallied.
Here we had a case of a campaign “get out the vote” operation that didn’t produce. Two statistics stand out: millions of white voters who voted in 2008 didn’t turn out, and Romney got fewer actual votes than McCain did in 2008.
Meanwhile, six million fewer Americans voted for Obama this time. And yet…
In any campaign it is axiomatic that you can’t control what the opposition does, but you can control what you do – or fail to do. This was a failure.
Keep this in mind when you hear the siren calls of the GOP establishment types claiming that we just need to moderate our positions or get more minority votes in order to win next time. (Note that Democrats didn’t suddenly become more pro-life or start espousing right-to-work laws after 2004).
If we’re doomed to lose because we’re “too conservative” or “too white”, then why did we win gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia just one year after Obama won the White House? Why did Republicans win the biggest congressional landslide in seventy-two years in 2010, not to mention a majority of governorships (many in “blue” states) and almost seven-hundred state legislative seats? How did we manage to win the union-sponsored recall election of Scott Walker in Wisconsin? And why are there more Hispanic elected Republicans than Democrats?
These are neither riddles nor accidents. In order to see the solution, some Republican leaders just need to open their eyes.
Obama won because the GOP messaging was weak, his attacks went unanswered and his campaign did a better job of turning out voters. Plain and simple. Not because we were too conservative. The question is, what do we do about it?
Here’s a thought: let’s spend at least as much time worrying about attracting more white voters as we do about more minority voters; let’s spend more time thinking about how to communicate conservatism to people regardless of their race or sex, and less time suggesting that we moderate our principles.
The motto for grassroots conservatives should be “never again”.
But in order to make that happen, conservatives have to take action – and that begins with a recommitment to taking over the machinery of the Republican Party at all levels.
Time to get to work.