On talk radio, in internet commentary and at right wing conferences, worried analysts and activists obsess over the dire electoral consequence of "three million missing Republicans" who doomed conservative chances in 2012.
This lament for the lost legions of conservatism has been relentlessly recycled in right-leaning media to prove that Mitt Romney failed to mobilize his base with his inept, uninspired campaign. The commonly cited proof for this conclusion is that Mitt Romney received even fewer votes than did the hapless McCain-Palin ticket. If only the GOP had run with a "true conservative" instead of another flip-flopping RINO, the true-believers affirm, millions of dispirited conservatives would have rallied to save the day.
It all sounds perfectly plausible except for the fact that it's also perfectly untrue.
First, Romney did NOT get a lower popular vote total than did McCain: He polled almost a million votes more (983,000 more, to be precise) and earned 33 additional electoral votes. It was Obama whose vote totals went down sharply, with 3,592,000 fewer votes than the first time.
The mistaken talking point about the "missing Republicans" came from the slow nature of the counting process. In the first few days after the election, millions of votes remained untallied, but even after the completed numbers came in, showing more GOP voters than 2008, few of the conclusion jumpers bothered to correct, or even adjust their post-election remarks.
Moreover, exit polls show that the electorate featured an unusually high percentage of both Republicans and conservatives, rather than offering any scrap of evidence for complaints over a disengaged base. In 2012, self-identified Republicans comprised precisely the same percentage of the electorate as in 2008, and gave even more overwhelming support (93% compared to 90%) to their party's nominee. What's more, conservatives not only made up a slightly higher percentage of the voters in 2012 than four years earlier, but even turned out more strongly as a percentage of electorate than they did for the victorious George W. Bush in 2004.
And what about the obsessive media mantra about Evangelical rejection of the GOP ticket because of distrust of Mitt Romney's Mormon faith? Actually, white "Evangelical" or "Born Again" Christians showed up in proportionately higher numbers for Romney than for McCain or, for that matter, for their fellow-Evangelical George W. Bush. This segment of the electorate amounted to 23% of all voters in 2004, but 25% in 2012, with Romney scoring the same overwhelming level of support as did the outspokenly born-again Bush (78%).
Finally, another false narrative suggests that the real story of Republican catastrophe in 2012 amounted to a wholesale rejection by younger voters who hated the party and its candidate because of antediluvian positions on social issues.
Oh, really? Then how could one explain that GOP support among 18-29 year old voters actually went up sharply from 2008—from 32% to 37%?
Even more startling, young people who happened to be white still comprised a big majority (61%) of all voters below the age of 30 and delivered a shocking, counter-intuitive verdict on the choice between the ineffably cool Barack and the hopelessly square Mitt: going for the Mormon grandfather of 18 by a decisive, near-landslide margin of 7 points. In fact, the entire basis for Barack Obama's strength among young voters in general stemmed from the disproportionate presence among them of blacks, Latinos and Asians—groups that tilted lopsidedly toward Obama. Non-whites comprised 39% of the youth vote but only 28% of the overall electorate, so it's hardly surprising that Romney would score a smaller overall percentage of these ballots from under-30 citizens. Romney's loss of young voters, in other words, reflects racial politics far more plausibly than any universal surge of youthful progressivism.
Going forward, the GOP clearly faces a crucial challenge in broadening support in communities of color, since white voters will never again comprise 72% (or more) of the overall electorate, and no candidate can possibly expect to do better among whites than did Romney (winning this component of the population by a crushing margin of 60-40%). Republicans don't need to win majorities among blacks, Latinos or Asians but they do need to compete: if Romney had fared only as well among these minority groups as did Bush in '04 (with 11% of blacks, and 44% of both Asians and Latinos) he would have won decisively—even with a far less white electorate.
The GOP faces formidable challenges in rebuilding after the crushing disappointment of November, but misinformation and distortion will only hinder that process. The problem for Romney and Ryan wasn't missing Republicans or disengaged conservatives or alienated Evangelicals. It was the appalling performance of the party and its ticket with all those voters, young and old, who identified with the nation's non-white minority. If Republicans ever hope to learn how to win again it's essential to be honest about how we lost—again.