Turn out the lights, the party’s over, Don Meredith would sing near the end of “Monday Night Football” games when the outcome appeared to be certain. The outcome of the 2016 election cycle still holds some uncertainty, especially in House and Senate control in the next session of Congress. However, if polling trends this week hold, Republicans will likely find themselves locked out of the White House for a third straight election. That has not happened since Harry Truman extended Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s record four terms in office with a surprise win over Thomas Dewey in 1948.
If that happens, the GOP will need to take stock and make some changes soon. If that sounds familiar, it should – the Republican National Committee said the same thing four years ago when it lost a winnable presidential election to Barack Obama. The following year, the RNC published its “Growth and Opportunity Project” report, which most everyone else referred to as the “autopsy,” outlining the failures that led to the 2012 loss by Mitt Romney and the GOP.
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The following spring, the Party updated the report with a section titled, “A One-Year Checkup,” which began with the observation that in retrospect seems bitterly ironic: The definition of insanity, according to the over-used proverb attributed to Einstein, is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Let’s recall what the autopsy recommended.
- First, the RNC recognized the need to establish a permanent and independent field organization on its own rather than rely on the nominee’s campaign to build its own.
- Second, the party changed its debate and primary process to expedite the selection of a candidate and to help Republicans unify around its nominee.
- Third, and most importantly, the report stressed the need to reach out and engage new communities, especially among Hispanic and African-American voters and women and millennials, by becoming part of those communities and engaging in peer-to-peer politics rather than “top-down” messaging.
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“The party has to stop talking to itself,” the check-up pointed out. “Last year we noted, ‘The pervasive mentality of writing off blocks of states or demographic votes for the
Republican Party must be completely forgotten.’ As best we can tell, at the RNC that mentality has, thankfully, been forgotten.”
Perhaps it was at the RNC, but with less than three weeks to go in the presidential election, it wasn’t with the presidential campaign. Thanks to a complete failure to learn those lessons, the Trump campaign looks poised to do no better in these areas, and in many significantly worse.
A Fox News survey published this week showed Trump trailing Hillary Clinton by 17 points among women, behind Romney’s 11-point deficit in 2012. Trump only garners 17 percent of the non-white vote and just 47 percent of the white vote, trailing Romney’s portion of the latter demo by twelve points. Clinton leads among voters under the age of 30 by 19 points, only slightly under Obama’s 22-point advantage four years ago.
Much of this can be laid at the feet of the nominee himself, who eschewed the ground-up, peer-to-peer campaign model for a personality-driven strategy that focused on the Republican base. However, his nomination resulted in a growing frustration with Republican elected leaders, resulting in a populist uprising that might have derailed what should be an easily winnable election against an unlikable Democratic nominee.
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Had Republicans delivered on their promises – and scaled those promises to the reality of their position and the reality of the lives of voters – then their slate of candidates might have fared much better against the celebrity stunt campaign of Donald Trump.
That disconnect began long before the Tea Party-driven midterm waves of 2010 and 2014. Its roots go back to the four-year period of Republican control of Washington in 2002-2006. After a bruising several years of divided government, the GOP promised its voters that single-party control would deliver on pledges to reduce government, shrink the regulatory state, and deal with the national debt. Instead, Republicans focused more on splitting the spoils with an ill-advised “K Street Project” to curry favor with lobbyists, and waste an opportunity to settle immigration and health-care reform efforts on conservative principles.
The Tea Party revolt in 2010 gave Republicans a chance to block Barack Obama’s radical agenda, at which the GOP House majority largely succeeded. After failing to win the White House in 2012, however, Republicans overpromised what a 2014 midterm win could deliver. As a result, they set themselves up for failure: A budget filibuster unsurprisingly failed to convince President Obama to repeal his own Obamacare law, and Congress had to compromise on other budget items to garner Obama’s signature – even though anyone with a basic education in civics could have predicted both outcomes.
But that’s only part of the problem. Republicans have gotten trapped into defending the interests of a narrow band of the wealthy rather than focus on the real concerns and decline of working-class Americans. In 2008, the financial-sector meltdown had Republicans grudgingly arguing for the bailout of “too big to fail” bankers. In 2012, Mitt Romney dismissed the “47 percent” while the GOP tried to defend venture capital operations – certainly defensible, but hardly an issue to which most voters relate.
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Small wonder that Trump struck a chord with working-class Americans in the GOP primaries when he ripped free trade deals for their impact on jobs and communities. Had Republicans made those issues the centerpiece of their economic initiatives while they had the chance in 2002-6, or even in the last four years of partial or complete control of Congress, they might have had a very different nominee in place now – and could have looked at a very different outcome in three weeks.
If Republicans want to recover after what will likely be a third straight presidential loss, they will need to start getting real. That means becoming part of new communities of voters rather than worrying about K Street lobbyists, working on issues that matter to broad sectors of the electorate, and expanding their footprint by making promises they can keep, and then keeping them. Otherwise, when someone sings Turn out the lights, the party’s over, they won’t be talking about football.