So what went wrong? First, demographics. This election is testimony to the fact that Republicans cannot survive by being the party of old white men. The white share of the electorate has steadily declined for the last several elections, and this time around, whites accounted for just 72 percent of the vote.
Other demographic changes worked against Republicans as well. For example, single women now outnumber married women in the electorate, and they favored Obama by roughly 30 points. The gender gap overall was bigger this year than in 2008. Moreover, the youth vote was larger this year than in 2008, and Obama dominated that too. American voters have changed, but Republicans haven’t changed with them.
Republicans must face up to the fact that their hard-line stance on immigration is disqualifying their candidates with Hispanics. Whereas George W. Bush once carried 44 percent of the Latino vote, Mitt Romney couldn’t crack 35 percent. To see why Romney appears to have essentially tied in Florida, for example, just look to Obama’s margin among non-Cuban Hispanics. Similarly, the growing Hispanic vote clearly cost Romney both Nevada and Colorado.
President Obama is likely to push immigration reform in his second term, and Republicans are going to have to find how to address the issue in a way that will not cost them the Latino vote for generations to come.
Second, social issues continue to hurt Republicans with women, young voters, and suburbanites. The problem is not just a matter of their stance on the issues, but their tone. It’s not just that Republicans oppose abortion or gay marriage, but that they often sound intolerant and self-righteous in doing so. Romney himself may not have put much emphasis on social issues, but the Republican brand was too easily associated with the words of Todd Akin.
Christian conservatives appear to have supported Romney by roughly the same margins they had previous Republican candidates. Exit polls suggest he won more than two-thirds of regular churchgoers. But their support couldn’t overcome Romney’s losses among economically conservative, socially moderate voters in the suburbs. Republican candidates seem culturally out of touch with a large swath of the electorate.
The GOP compounded this by indulging mindless “birther” theories throughout much of the campaign, and by failing to offer a positive, hopeful agenda for the future. In the end, swing voters were turned off.
Over the next few weeks, the experts will undoubtedly pick apart the exit polls and the precinct-by-precinct results, but it isn’t hard to see that Republicans are going to have to do some serious soul searching in several respects, or this defeat will just be the beginning.
— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.