Republicans have gotten their backsides kicked in the last two presidential election cycles, which are essentially the "Super Bowls" of American politics. The party's standard-bearers have lost the popular vote in five of the last six contests, with the lone exception of President Bush's 2004 re-election. Bluntly stated, the GOP's national political model is broken. The Republican National Committee has just published an exhaustive report about what went wrong in 2012, when a Democratic president with mediocre approval ratings and historically poor economic indicators won a second term by a comfortable, 3.5 million vote margin. The political bubble and its inhabitants are infamous for self serving ass-covering, which is why the RNC's new autopsy deserves significant credit for its refreshing -- and at times startling -- frankness. Though various elements within the conservative coalition will surely identify elements to criticize, the 100-page report advances some hard, unvarnished truths about the party's deficient mechanics, assumptions and strategies -- as well as the changing face of the electorate. It draws conclusions based upon raw data and feedback from tens of thousands party organizers, political practitioners, pollsters, candidates and elected officials, technology experts, grassroots activists, and swing state focus group participants.
(1) On messaging, the RNC document recommends rebranding the "Grand Old Party" (which evokes a sclerotic, aging entity) as the "Growth and Opportunity Party." It warns that Republicans are increasingly viewed as a "scary," "stuffy," and "out-of-touch" party that doesn't care about average people. Gov. Scott Walker issued a similar admonition in his excellent CPAC address over the weekend. The report emphasizes the need for Republicans to articulate why conservative principles and governance make people's lives better, and downshift their focus on statistics and dogma. On the subject of persuasion and success, it notes a striking dichotomy between state-level Republicans and Beltway Republicans: The GOP controls 60 percent of the nation's governorships, yet is flailing in Washington. The message is that the party's salvation and reformation lies in the states, and that Republican solutions and rhetoric must be more "people oriented." This requires active and persistent outreach to citizens beyond traditional conservative precincts; expanding the party's appeal and message beyond the existing echo chamber demands more persuasion and less rigid purity, the assessment argues -- even as it affirms long-standing principles that undergird the party and wider conservative movement:
"The Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself. We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue."
This document tackles a few thorny "gateway" issues, explicitly endorsing comprehensive immigration reform (reason for healthy skepticism here), and acknowledging the growing generational divide on gay rights. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus says these postures represent a reinforcement of Ronald Reagan's "80 percent" rule on strategic alliances; not a unilateral surrender on values. "Abandoning our principles isn't happening and will never happen, but I'm also not going to tell someone they're not welcome into our party because I disagree with them on a few issues," he tells Townhall.
(2) On demographic shifts, the report confronts reality. The American electorate is looks very different than it did even ten years ago, and Republicans are struggling to adapt to the trends. If it doesn't evolve along with the country, the party risks condemning itself to permanent minority status. Voters are less white, less traditional and less male than ever. Indeed, women comprised 53 percent of the electorate in 2012. Barack Obama won this overall demographic by 11 points, despite losing married women by double digits. The report blasts Republicans for their slow -- and sometimes silent -- response to false "war on women" attacks from Democrats, pointedly asserting, "women are not a 'coalition;' they represent more than half the voting population in the country, and the inability to win their votes is losing us elections." The authors call for redoubling efforts to recruit and attract strong female, ethnic and young Republican candidates and surrogates. On its way is a new "inclusion council" to develop and strengthen ties with communities and groups that aren't typically Republican strongholds. Priebus says GOP outreach to minority groups should occur along two tracks: First, a "consistent commitment," approach that entails "on-the-ground, granular, detailed, community-based" relationship building, including "hundreds" of paid staffers. Second, improved listening and communication, with the new council acting as one important avenue for initiating and sustaining conversations leaders from a wide array of communities and groups. The report recommends highlighting policy proposals and outcomes that align with the interests of these communities, including Republicans' commitment to parental choice for students trapped in failing public schools.
(3) On the GOP's technological and mechanical inferiority, the report is unsparing, as is Priebus. "There is a tech gap," he says. "This is the truth, and we have to make up the difference." To that end, the report calls for the establishment of a Republican data analytics institute, hiring more tech-savvy strategists at competitive market prices, and bringing on an in-house RNC "chief technology and digit officer." Priebus says his biggest take-away from the party's self-evaluation exercise has been Democrats' quality of voter contacts, an advantage built by relentless, sophisticated data mining, and much sounder campaign operations. Democrats are running circles around Republicans on data analysis and coordination, voter registration, and micro-targeting messages for specific audiences. The document says GOP strategies are becoming increasingly obsolete across the board, from message management, to ad buying patterns, to get-out-the-vote efforts. It's time to enter the 21st century and immediately implement a series of best practices to make up lost ground, it argues. A number of its criticisms are aimed squarely at the Romney campaign's most conspicuous failures, including the historic polling misfire that led Team Romney to wrongly believe they were poised to win on election day. There were even a series of action points on innovations and improvements in fundraising, which was a relative GOP strength last year.
(4) On the presidential nominating calendar, the report states that elements of this process have become "ridiculous." It expresses a strong preference for primary elections over caucuses and state conventions, aims to curtail the sprawling primary calendar, and seeks to wrest control over the wild west spectacle of last year's Republican debates. On the second point, the document suggests setting an earlier end date to the primary season in order to facilitate an earlier national convention, in late June or July. This would enable the nominee to start legally deploying his or her general election war chest before late August or early September. It allows for certain traditional "carve out" states to kick off process (Iowa, New Hampshire, etc), but advises root-and-branch changes to virtually everything else. To wit:
To facilitate moving up primary elections to accommodate an earlier convention, the Party should strongly consider a regional primary system or some other form of a major reorganization instead of the current system. The current system is a long, winding, often random road that makes little sense. It stretches the primaries out too long, forces our candidates to run out of money, and because some states vote so late, voters in those states never seem to count.
On the debate front, the top two reforms include a significant reduction in number (from 20-plus to roughly a dozen), and increased party influence over the schedule and format of the sanctioned debates. Priebus calls last year's debate parade a "free for all" that was too often injurious to the party and its brand. "We need to help pick moderators that we want, and avoid a bunch of gotcha questions from people who aren't our friends." he says. "Republicans ought to be involved in deciding who the moderators are going to be for an important part of choosing a candidate within our own party. The alternative with networks making unilateral decisions is unacceptable." The general idea is to select in advance the dates and locations for a pre-determined number debates, starting no earlier than September 2015, and spanning into March 2016. The party would construct a series of rules (both "incentives" and "penalties," according to Priebus) to attempt to enforce adherence to the established schedule, and would work with the networks to shape the tenor, themes and arbiters of those discussions. I'll leave you with video of Chairman Priebus unveiling the report at the National Press Club this morning. As you watch, it's not difficult to surmise why former White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer -- one of the assessment's authors -- calls his team's effort a "blunt" endeavor to "blow the whistle" on the struggles of a floundering party:
For a thoughtful critique of the RNC report, read Ramesh Ponnuru. For a glowing review, read Jennifer Rubin. The RNC has pledged an initial $10 million investment to begin to address and rectify the systemic problems it has identified.