Monday, November 12, 2012

Wednesday Morning Quarterbacking

To me, one of the most interesting phases of an election is the postmortem debate over what the elections mean. Those on the winning side claim credit for providing the decisive edge; those on the losing side cite unfairness--either by the winning side or an imbalanced political process--or blame their intra-party rivals for the loss.

On the winning side, there are two dominant narratives: (1) the Democrats have solidified a coalition of the future, and (2) the Obama campaign did an extraordinary job of turning out voters. President Obama himself was on the forefront of narrative #1 with his premortem analysis to the Des Moines Register:
Should I win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community.
And our own Seth Masket was on the cutting edge of narrative #2 by highlighting the Obama advantages in field offices. Mischief of Factions 1, everyone else 0.

A third narrative: Democrats have a long-term Electoral College advantage.

The other side of the coin is the GOP blame game. To some of my schadenfreude-indulging friends, some of this has been a bit cathartic: "I don't ordinarily watch Fox News, but when I do I like to see them discuss Obama's reelection." But the GOP discussion is also critical to the future of the party. If the 2008 and 2012 losses point to a long-term challenge for the party, then the GOP needs to radically retool its message, positions, and candidates. If, on the other hand, the GOP has just had two cycles of bad luck and poor candidates, then it's business as usual. With that in mind, here's a quick round-up of the GOP responses.

1) America sucks. Well, America is the best country ever anywhere anytime, but a majority of Americans are fundamentally greedy, selfish, and unpatriotic. As Federalist party politicians will tell you, however, it is hard to win elections with the message, "We despise you and desperately wish we didn't have to ask for your vote, but go ahead and vote for us anyway."

2) Obama and the Democrats had an unfair advantage. They were supported by labor unions instead of billionaires. The Obama campaign said mean things about Mitt Romney, complains Karl Rove [sic].

3) The Romney campaign was incompetent.  (But see: Romney outperformed several GOP Senate candidates.)

4) The GOP needs to revamp its party infrastructure, e.g. improving its voter turnout efforts and social media presence.

The common theme of the conservative base is that the message was fine, but the messenger, media, or campaign apparatus was insufficient. The GOP just needs to do a better job of turning out all those conservative voters out there!

On the other hand, there is a bit of circular fire-squadding:


"In this reassuring conservative pocket universe, Rasmussen polls are gospel, the Benghazi controversy is worse than Watergate, “Fair and Balanced” isn’t just marketing and Dick Morris is a political seer."
As the election drew near I had more than one conversation with Republicans who were certain that new Benghazi documents were going to swing the election. Not so much. Nor Solyndra. Nor "Fast and Furious."

Finally, there is the option of actually amending policy positions.

  • Bill Kristol suggests raising taxes
  • John Boehner, Sean Hannity, and Charles Krauthammer recommend comprehensive immigration reform (New York Magazine's recap by Jonathan Chait).
[Readers: feel free to add to this recap of GOP/conservative reaction to the election]

From a MoF perspective, there are two aspects of this conversation that are especially interesting. 

First, as Jonathan Martin discusses, a significant segment of the conservative establishment consists of radio and TV talk show hosts who have a financial interest in their own market share and no direct interest in the political success of their party. Indeed, one might even suggest that business is better when the GOP is not in office, since then a Democratic President and Congress provide ample material for discussion, the hosts have no reason to go easy on office holders, and there is probably a significant segment of the population who feel alienated and are amenable to strident criticism of the status quo (see also Olbermann, Keith).

Second, it is not always clear how a party network changes its overall strategy. On one hand, if the GOP changed its policy positions this would be most evident in the agenda of the U.S. House of Representatives, which is both centrally coordinated by the party leadership and completely transparent. Also, a more moderate GOP tone might be evident in its choice of Congressional leadership and RNC chair (but see Steele, Michael). On the other hand, shifts in the tone of conservative debate, in campaign tactics and technology, and candidate recruitment are more decentralized and thus harder for any central actor to enforce or coordinate. In particular, a party's current coalition can be a strong constraint on efforts to expand the coalition to new demographic or interest groups. During George W. Bush's 2000 campaign there were media reports that the Bush campaign was carefully polling every day to make sure they were striking a balance between maintaining their base of white voters and reaching out to (especially) Latino voters. The GOP now faces a similar task, but with the extra burden of the last six years of debate over immigration and without the benefit of regular polling to guide them.

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