by John Stemberger
It is hard to make the argument for one glaring reason that caused Republicans to lose the White House in 2012. It appears to be a more complex combination of circumstances that came together to produce a victory for President Obama. Here is one man’s perspective on what went wrong for conservatives and what the left did correctly.
- Moderate Republicans are losing Republicans. Governor Romney is a decent and honorable family man with great business and leadership experience. But the reality is Mitt Romney was a very flawed candidate from the outset. He was a Northeastern liberal and arguably the most liberal republican ever nominated for President by the Republican Party. The history of Presidential elections demonstrates a pattern of moderate Republicans losing: Goldwater, Bush I, Dole, McCain, and Romney. In my opinion Romney was the GOP candidate most vulnerable to defeat by Obama; who he was and what he stood for on his voting record is the single most significant factor in the Republican defeat. As was commonly stated in the 2008 McCain/Obama election, conservatives did not lose the election. Conservatives were just not on the ballot.
- This election was all about negative energy, not positive motivation. For most conservatives Romney was the last choice in the primary because they knew when you looked into his ideological soul there was no governing first principle except political pragmatism. Romney’s favorable ratings were among the lowest ever recorded for a presidential candidate in the modern era. The motivation for grassroots conservatives was primarily negative against Obama; there was very little positive energy or enthusiasm for the future invested in the ideal of Mitt Romney. In the post-election Pew poll, a much greater percentage of Obama supporters (80%) than Romney supporters (60%) told Pew that they were voting for their candidate rather than against his opponent.
- Latinos, Latinos, Latinos! Ignore them to your peril. Hispanic Americans are the fastest growing demographic in America. Today they represent nearly one out of every six adults in the United States and this number will continue to increase. Yet 71% of Hispanic Americans voted for Barack Obama. In my opinion most of the outreach to Hispanics by the Romney campaign and by other coalition groups was misguided, anemic or completely lacking. One such wrong-sided attempt was a newly created group for the election call “Libra” which attempted to reach Hispanics on economic issues. You are not going to teach Hispanic voters to become economic conservatives in a couple of months before an election. You have to build upon their existing core values– life, marriage and family. Hispanics are social conservatives but most GOP leadership run from social conservative issues. I have been preaching for years in national conservative circles that we need deliberate and thoughtful outreaches to Hispanic voters and we need to develop and raise up Latin American political conservatives. If we don’t we are in trouble. Finally, Paul Ryan is no Marco Rubio and the VP pick was a mistake in my opinion. Rubio would have given the conservative grassroots base all the excitement and energy of Sarah Palin with none of the “bad aftertaste”. Perhaps when the time came Rubio was considered but did not want the position as Romney’s running mate. We may never know for sure.
- If Evangelical pastors and Catholic priests do not become more engaged, conservatives can never win elections. In my view this is the bottom line for the future. A majority of the Republican base and grassroots are comprised of primarily religious conservatives. If we lose these voters, the GOP will never win elections. We are gradually losing them and therefore eroding our base. Leadership by Evangelical pastors and Catholic priests is the key to Republicans winning national elections—and the left knows this. We saw an unprecedented awakening of pastors in 2012 because of the enormous threat to religious liberties but I also observed a significant apathy and falling away of pastors and an indifference to their role to teach and preach on civic involvement. The left is clear on understanding how important this is. Only days after the election, a well-funded and highly developed center-left evangelical group “Denison Group” started placing internet ads influencing the faith community on Obama’s agenda for social issues over the next four years into 2016. They are thinking way ahead of us! The bottom line is this: If the ceases to see itself as a voice in the culture outside the four walls of the church then it is over politically. Conservatives will never win elections and liberals will become permanently entrenched. We must continue to educate evangelical pastors to see themselves as not just the guardians of the church and the family but also as guardians of the community and the wider culture, including civil government.
- It’s not just the “economy stupid”; it’s also social issues. President Obama ran a “base vote” campaign whose strategy was simple: turn out the base of the Democratic coalition. Romney ran a “swing vote” campaign strategy that only went after the 7% of undecided or swing voters. Obama openly spoke and campaigned on issues appealing to his base: abortion rights, gay marriage and other left-leaning social issues. Unfortunately the Republicans did not speak to their base and Romney attempted to run even further to the center on social issues during the final months of the campaign. Romney announced he would enact no new pro-life laws if elected and then he even came close to reversing himself by indicating that he would not support a Federal Marriage Amendment. He did very little, if anything, in the election to reach out to social conservatives and all the while Obama pursued center-left faith voters and center-right evangelicals. Romney assumed white evangelicals would just fall in line and choose him over Obama, but he was wrong. Many of them stayed home or voted for “purist” candidates no one has heard of. The Romney campaign’s failure of to address social conservative issues (and even to run away from them at times) was an enormous mistake in my view. Minority voters (both black and Latino) can also be reached and animated with social conservative issues and that was another missed opportunity. The marriage issue, though unsuccessful on the ballot in four states, still got higher voter numbers than Governor Romney. On average the marriage issue did 6% better than Romney in all the states where it was on the ballot. Had Romney even done small things like tweeting support during the Chick-fil-A marriage controversy or making arguments for life in speeches he would have enormously helped his campaign energize a base that was dying for some positive energy and confidence in their candidate. Instead Romney focused almost exclusively on the economy. I am sure we will hear the chorus of moderate Republicans once again calling for the party to “avoid the social issues and focus on the economy”. The irony is we have tried that in the past 2 elections and it has failed miserably. Social issues were nowhere to be found in Romney’s campaign so how could that have contributed to his defeat? The truth is life, marriage and family are both good policy and good politics. The day that Republicans get this is the day they will be on the path to victory.
- Super Storm Sandy was a gift to the President. The unexpected “almost- hurricane” super storm Sandy was a major gift to Barack Obama. The tragic results of the storm put the President in a very important role—an almost heroic role helping and appearing to “rescue” those whose property and lives were devastated. The focus was off our awful economic woes so substantive attacks on Obama’s record were made difficult. I do not assign too much weight to Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s comments praising the President but it clearly did not help the Republican candidate. Conservative activist Rod Martin said in his brilliant analysis of the election “Sandy kept Mitt Romney off TV for five crucial days, days which, without Sandy, would almost certainly have seen Romney’s lead solidify and grow. Instead, Barack Obama had a rare (and rarely taken) chance to look truly presidential, for the entire last week of the campaign, with zero competition.”
- The rapidly expanding welfare class is loyal to the political party who is cutting the checks. Romney took heat for talking about the 47% in a pejorative way but they are a serious voting force. Rush Limbaugh said it with less finesse when he stated it is “Very difficult to beat Santa Claus.” Apart from being bad fiscal and economic policy, the rapidly expanding welfare class has serious political ramifications. When we reach the point where more than 50% of the electorate is receiving wealth and not creating it, you have fundamentally changed the social contract between government and its citizens. A perverse political loyalty begins to cement itself between the state and its new “welfare citizens”. This number has grown rapidly and exponentially over the last four years and will continue to grow even greater over the next four years under the Obama administration.
- Democrats have been organizing — and never stopped since the last election in 2008. Political operatives have reported that after Barack Obama’s election in 2008 many of his key campaign offices in battleground states like Ohio and Florida never closed down; they continued to be staffed straight into 2012. During most of 2012 when the GOP was still trying to figure out which candidate would be the nominee, Obama’s operatives continued to organize. From my perspective the Democrats’ ground game for voter registration and GOTV efforts were close to flawless because of the early lead time, human resources and available funding. Finally, Democrats have exploited early voting to their advantage in an unprecedented and powerful way. This was a major strategic factor in Obama’s successful campaign for a second win and one which Republicans need to be aware of and respond in kind with a similar strategy. There are actually quite a few really good reasons why early voting is a really bad idea in the first place but that debate is for another time.
- Democrats leveraged social media, Internet, Google ads, and direct outreach to win young people in record numbers. Never before has the youth vote been leveraged so effectively by a Presidential campaign. At colleges like the University of Central Florida in Orlando, “Obama friendly” operatives went right into large lecture halls with announcements about voter registration before and after classes. They registered new voters by the thousands in Florida and across the country. Barack and Michelle Obama’s “cool factor” and youthfulness were a powerful force to attract the attention of the younger generation. The Obama campaign also strategically hired a sizable team of former Facebook and Google employees to run their social media presence, which was second to none. Customized full color large ads ubiquitously graced the Internet, reminding voters of the deadlines for voter registration, early voting and other GOTV messages, all sponsored by the Obama campaign. While Romney had some Facebook presence, his campaign did not even come close to leveraging social media they way Obama did—yet again.
- Instances of voter fraud, voter intimidation and sharp GOTV practices from the Obama campaign were widespread. I really hesitated to include this last factor at the risk of being misunderstood as buying into some fringe position, but the evidence is mounting and compelling. I attended a conference of conservative leaders from around the country in Washington, DC just days after the election. I heard countless reports from a variety of states about complaints ranging from edgy and intimidating campaigning to outright fraud. The Broward County Supervisor of Elections office in Florida reported “discovering” 1,000 ballots after the election was over in a “warehouse” earlier this month. Various conservative groups are collecting stories and firsthand accounts of voter intimidation and fraud. This stuff seems unbelievable at times but it exists and is all around us. Citizens should rise up and demand that Congress hold special hearings on voter fraud and ballot security. Our entire representative democracy rests upon the integrity of our local county Supervisors of Elections and their ability to hold fair and valid elections. If this is seriously undermined, the legitimacy of our entire civil government is at stake.
John Stemberger is an Orlando attorney and is a former Political Director of the Republican Party of Florida. He has served as an adviser to state, federal, and presidential candidates for the last two decades and led the successful 2008 statewide campaign to pass the Florida Marriage Protection Amendment with a 62 percent vote margin. Stemberger is currently president of Florida Family Action where he oversaw 12 field offices across the state, raised and spent over two million dollars in an unprecedented campaign to mobilize grassroots conservatives in Florida in 2012.