If the national elections had been contested in the Republican’s political version of a fantasy football league, Barack Obama would have received 47-plus percent of the vote. And, they would have picked up five seats in the Senate and eight seats in the House. Just the opposite occurred.
This stunned many Republicans whose parallel universe view had them convinced that they would not only win but dominate in the presidential and congressional election battles. Why and how did they get this so wrong? What are the implications for them and why is how this is resolved important to the future of our nation?
It’s important because a vibrant two-party system makes our republic stronger. It provides the basis for compromise, forward momentum and progress. It builds the country up and brings us together rather than tearing us down and apart.
If the Republicans continue to play in a league of their own, they and our democracy will be worse off for it. It is from this perspective that we provide our assessment of the Republicans’ current situation and prescriptions for the future.
There are undoubtedly many reasons for the Republicans’ miscalculations this past election cycle. We want to highlight three: poor campaign execution; personal biases; and — by far the most important — life within the conservative echo chamber or bubble.
Much was written immediately after the elections about the poor internal polling of the Romney campaign and its inability to get its turnout machine, ORCA, which had not been tested prior to Election Day, to work properly. These performance problems certainly played a role in Romney’s loss but they were not dispositive.
They were contributing factors to the doomsday scenario that transpired for the Republicans. But, they were effects rather than causes. The root causes for the failures of the Republican Party in this election cycle were the mindsets of the candidates and their consultants, and the construction of a virtual reality in which many Republican politicians and avid supporters reside.
Contrary to popular opinion, no one — even the most rational and analytical among us — is a completely objective arbiter of information. We are creatures of “bounded rationality.”
Each of us has filters. We examine and analyze data through those filters and discount or reinterpret that which doesn’t fit our dominant paradigm.
Most of us also engage in “selection bias” in which we only search out information and associate with people who confirm our opinions. Moreover, “meta-analysis” by researchers from the Universities of Illinois and Florida found that many people do not even attempt to secure data if it does not agree with their viewpoints.
When it comes to viewpoints, ideological biases can significantly constrain our objectivity and decision-making capability. Political scientist Philip Tetlock demonstrated this when he evaluated predictions from “experts” in different fields regarding specific events and compared them to the predictions of well informed lay people. The lay people did just as well as the experts in most instances and outperformed them in many.
Tetlock labeled these people “foxes” because they had an open mind and no preconceived positions. In contrast, he labeled the so-called experts “hedgehogs” because they had distorting filters through which they interpreted things.
In this political season, in the main, the Republican candidates and consultants fell into the hedgehog category. They might have appeared fox-like when they were engaged with the Fox media machine. But, the truth is they were faux foxes and soothsayers. They invented a fictional reality and forgot it was a fabrication. As a result, that they were “out-foxed.”
David Frum, a Republican, former speech writer for George W. Bush, and a former employee of the American Enterprise Institute, described the Republican Party’s condition and problems in a prescient article, titled “When Did the GOP Lose Touch With Reality,” which he wrote for New York Magazine in November 2011.
In the article, Frum observed, “Over the past two decades conservatism has evolved from a political philosophy into a market segment. An industry has grown up to serve that segment and its stars have become the true thought leaders of the conservative world.”
Frum also noted:
Backed by their own wing of the book publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics.
If the conservatives had been able to comprehend and act upon Frum’s narrative when it was written, just about one year before the election, they might have been able to reverse the course of election events. Of course, they didn’t and couldn’t because it didn’t square with their construction of reality
Neither did Nate Silver’s election projections and predictions. Silver is a statistician who has built his own model and methodology for aggregrating and analyzing polls. He first came to fame in the political arena in 2008 for correctly predicting the results of the presidential elections and senate races with amazing accuracy.
He did the same thing this time round in his FiveThirtyEight blogs and columns in the New York Times. From the summer months through the fall, Silver showed Obama with consistent and commanding leads both nationally and in key battleground states. On the day before the election, Silver projected that there was a 91 percent chance that Obama would win the national election with a good margin and get at least 313 electoral votes. (Obama did win handily and got 332 electoral votes).
The Republicans could have relied on Silver’s models and customized their strategies in response to the insights they provided state by state to try to carve out a path to victory. Instead of choosing silver, however, they chose fool’s gold. They turned inward rather than outward and trusted their own pundits, pollsters and critics.
Nearly all of the Republican pundits, including Peggy Noonan, Michael Barone, George Will and Glen Beck, jumped on the election victory prediction bandwagon. Dick Morris, whom Henrik Herzbeg describes as “a Fox News ‘analyst’ reputed to be a pollster” on election eve predicted “a landslide for Romney.”
The pundits were joined by the Silver scoffers of all types. Many of whom, as John McQuaid noted in his article for Forbes on the day after the election, “seemed not to understand basic statistical concepts.”
The bottom line is that the Republicans missed both the narrative and the numbers. They trusted more in revelations than in reality and paid the price big time for playing in a league of their own.
Election Day was a wake-up call for the Republican establishment. But, as might be expected, the responses to that call tended to be conservatively colored and ideologically oriented. They ranged from “stay the course” to “change the direction” but were definitely more “party focused” than “people focused.”
Columnist Charles Krauthammer asserted, “There is no need for radical change.” Columnist Ross Douthat advised, “What the party really needs much more than a better identity politics is an economic message that would appeal across demographic lines…” Columnist Michael Gerson cautioned, “The next Republican campaign will need to be capable of complex adjustments of ideology, policy and rhetoric.”
Complexity was not at the top of most Republican politicians’ and donors’ assessments and agendas, however. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney attributed the loss to Democratic “gifts” to different voting blocs. Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan placed the blame on “urban areas.”
According to Alexander Bolton of The Hill, “The chief lesson GOP senators are taking away from the route is that they need to find more appealing candidates, not necessarily overhaul their policy stances.” The Republican governors said the failure came to the Romney campaign’s inability to “offer specifics.” Former Secretary of Commerce Carlos Guttierez and Republican operative Charlie Spies established a new Super PAC called “Republicans for Immigration Reform.”
In general, these responses indicate that many Republicans still want to play in their own league and by their own rules. If they want to compete effectively nationally, however, they will have to return to the real-world playing field with a new game plan and a new team.
This requires transformation not tweaking. Our general recommendations for accomplishing this transformation follow.
In our opinion, in order to transform itself, the Republican Party and its conservative leadership will have to make three vital shifts. They need to move from:
- Cocooning to connecting
- Base building to electorate expanding
- Lecturing and labeling to listening and learning
Politico blogger Jonathan Martin has written that there are group of younger Republicans (under 50) who are calling for the party to “break free from a political-media cocoon that has become intellectually suffocating and self defeating.” We agree completely with the need to get out of the Republican cocoon but it’s not just the media that is creating it. The cocoon is multi-layered and also comprised of rabid politicians and partisans who dominate the party’s messages and agenda. This layering hermetically seals the cocoon making it virtually impenetrable and impregnable.
The United States is a patchwork quilt nation of diverse communities. In order to win elections, it is important to connect to those communities in meaningful and authentic ways. That can’t be done from inside a cocoon. It requires reaching out and touching many different types of some-ones in lots of different some-wheres.
It demands inclusion as opposed to exclusion. The Democrats didn’t win the national election because of the “47 percent.” The percentages that mattered were: 90-plus percent of the African American vote; 70-plus percent of the Hispanic vote; 70-plus percent of the Asian vote; 60 percent of the youth vote; 56 percent of the moderate independent vote; 55 percent of the female vote; and approximately 40 percent of the white male vote.
The Democrats also didn’t win because of gifts to voters. The gifts that produced the resounding Democratic victory were not those distributed by President Obama but those he received from the Republicans. They were self-absorption, and the inability to build support outside of their natural base of voters.
According to a Pew political typology survey conducted mid-year, the Republicans began this election cycle with about 46 percent of the population as Republican or Republican-leaning. The Democrats started with about 40 percent. Fourteen percent was up for grabs — although some of that percentage tended to lean Democratic.
The Republicans ended up with 47-plus percent of the national vote, which means they only added a little more than 1 percent because of and during their campaign. The Democrats acquired the rest. They did this by putting up a big tent and not a pup tent. The Republicans will need to do the same to defeat the Democrats and to win four years from now. They will need to shift the focus from their base and appealing to it to expanding their pool of potential voters.
To connect to the community and to expand the electorate, the Republicans need to become proficient at learning and listening to citizens from outside the inner sanctum of their echo chamber. The tendency, as we highlighted at the outset of the blog, however, is to listen to the voices inside the bubble rather than those from outside it.
Eugene Robinson puts it this way: “The voices the party should ignore include those claiming that House Republicans, by retaining their majority, won some sort of mandate to continue pushing a radical conservative agenda. … The fog lifts. The fog descends.” If they stay in the fog, the Republicans will keep playing in their own league.
The old saying goes that politics is not bean bag. Nor is it played in a league of one’s own. It is played in the real world in head to head competition.
If the Republicans have learned this lesson, after our most recent national election, we will all benefit from their new knowledge. If they have not, we will all suffer the consequences.