Soon after Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus called for an official “autopsy” of what went wrong, and produced a 100-page dissection of the defeat the following March.
After the 2020 election, the current RNC chair is calling for no such thing, and according to Politico, no state or local party officials are demanding an autopsy either.
The officials quoted by Politico say there is no need for change. “Everything’s great,” said Michigan’s 10th Congressional District Republican Chairman Stan Grot. “Our president absolutely grew our party,” said Minnesota Republican Party Chair Jennifer Carnahan. Nodding toward Trump’s outlandish and false claims that he actually got the most votes, Victoria County, Texas, Republican Party Chair Bill Pozzi offered, “It wasn’t a matter of our candidate. It was a matter of the process.”
Why no autopsy this time? Why all the happy talk? Trump and Romney lost by almost identical popular vote margins and similar Electoral College maps (just swap Obama’s Florida, Ohio and Iowa for Biden’s Arizona, Georgia and Nebraska 2nd Congressional District.)
One obvious difference is that 2012 did not feature a defeated incumbent president brazenly insisting he won. But the bigger question is: Why are there so many Republicans willing to believe him? After all, rank-and-file party members are normally quite quick to wash their hands of losing presidential candidates, including — perhaps especially — losing incumbents.
My answer: As Donald Trump might say, Republicans aren’t bored with losing yet.
It can be hard for a political party to undergo a major recalibration away from its ideological base and toward the political center. The impulse doesn’t organically materialize unless a party loses at least two presidential elections in a row, and I would argue requires three consecutive losses to make an “electability” shift unavoidable. Why three? Because, in the era of presidential term limits, that means you have lost to two different opponents, and can’t blame your first two defeats on a single, charismatic president (such as Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama). The problem has to be you, not them.
The one, clear example of this three-losses rule is when Democrats lost the presidency in 1980, 1984 and 1988 with candidates of a similar liberal stripe. (In fact, this is the only period in the term-limit era when one party has won the presidency three times in a row.) After Jimmy Carter failed to win reelection, Democrats nominated Carter’s vice president Walter Mondale. Then they tried Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. By the time 1992 arrived, Democrats were hungry for a win, and found themselves accepting of the moderate Bill Clinton. The Arkansan governor provocatively pledged to reform welfare and not only supported the death penalty, but executed a prisoner with an IQ of around 70. Clinton didn’t even bother to name a running mate who would provide ideological balance; he chose then-Sen. Al Gore, who at the time had a decidedly moderate reputation. Yet the party’s left flank acquiesced with minimal complaint.
Two consecutive losses can precipitate some change. Democrats partially turned away from ideological purity after losing to Richard Nixon twice in 1968 and 1972, abandoning the prairie progressivism of George McGovern for the relative moderation of Jimmy Carter. McGovern had suffered a crushing defeat, and his brand of liberalism had never been universally embraced inside his party, prompting Democrats to move away from it fairly quickly. (However, Carter’s ideological heterodoxy would end up exacerbating intra-party divisions, contributing to his 1980 defeat for reelection.)
Republicans recalibrated in 2000, after losing to Clinton twice. Over the course of the Clinton presidency, conservative firebrand Newt Gingrich emerged as the face of the GOP. Yet George W. Bush convinced party members to soften their edges and run on “compassionate conservatism.” After only two losses, Republican primary voters were not prepared to dramatically recalibrate and nominate John McCain, who was running on the liberal idea of campaign finance reform and dared to dub conservative evangelical leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, along with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, “agents of intolerance.” Bush’s changes to conservatism, mostly cosmetic, were sufficient.
When losses cannot be easily attributed to ideological dead weight, recalibration more easily gets pulled toward the party’ base. So after two losses to Bush, Democrats shifted again in 2008 by ticking a few notches leftward with Barack Obama. That shift was greased with 2006 Democratic midterm election success by running more declaratively against the ongoing Iraq War, which 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry initially voted to authorize and Obama consistently opposed.
Then, after two Republicans (McCain and Romney) with relatively moderate, “establishment” reputations couldn’t stop Obama, Republicans swerved to a conservative populist in Trump.
(Joe Biden’s 2020 nomination, with its heavy emphasis on bipartisanship, may have rankled the left edge of the Democratic Party, but it really was an extension of Obama-ism, who also sought to repudiate notions of a red state/blue state divide. It represented a refusal by Democrats to slide farther left, but — following just a single presidential election loss — was not a significant recalibration from where Obama positioned the party.)
Crucially, the nomination of Trump was a repudiation of the 2012 autopsy, which called for softer tone on race-related issues and an embrace of immigration. Trump’s 2016 general election victory, in turn, harmed the ability of risk-averse establishment Republicans to argue they knew best how to win elections, and should be heeded when calling for moves to the middle.
In other words, the Republican Party has already, quite recently, undergone a significant change. Since that change, the GOP has a 1-1 record in presidential elections. That’s not enough losing to convince rank-and-file members another overhaul is needed, just like Democrats in the 1980s were not compelled to make a significant break with their recent, losing past.
In my last column, I expressed some optimism that the congressional Republican appetite for bipartisan compromise could be whetted by a successful negotiation on pandemic relief. The above analysis does not negate that optimistic view. However, it does present a stiff challenge for any Republicans in Congress who wish to bargain with Democrats in good faith.
A mid-November poll from Seven Letter Insight found that 48% of Republican voters want “Congressional Republicans [to] seek compromises and work with the Biden Administration” while 52% said, “Congressional Republicans should oppose the Biden Administration.” The willing-to-compromise segment may well like compromise in the abstract far more than in reality; as such, these numbers do not give Republicans in Congress wide latitude to wheel and deal. But what could possibly change those numbers, and change the mindset of some Republican voters, is if Biden delivers on his pledge to de-polarize our politics, cajoling enough Republican senators to take some chances and producing bipartisan compromises that deliver positive change in people’s lives.
But if our politics remain polarized, then you can expect Trumpism to remain the lifeblood of the Republican Party … at least, until a couple more defeats deliver a message impossible to ignore.