By Hunter Baker
Mitt Romney ran an excellent campaign. I congratulate him on investing in the hard work of leadership. He is an American hero. However, he was the wrong person to run in a year when the single greatest challenge Republicans could make rested on the repeal of Obamacare due to the continuing unpopularity of the health care reform.
Anti-Obamacare sentiment was enough to elect Scott Brown in Massachusetts when voters thought he might cast the decisive vote against the bill. This dynamic might well have been enough to put the right Republican over the top nationwide. But Mitt Romney could not make a convincing case against Obama’s law when it resembled his own work in Massachusetts.
His federalism distinction was accurate but made little sense to typical voters, who saw an apple that looked like the apple everyone was yelling about.
We may also have learned something about Americans and religion. Romney appears to have underperformed McCain by 2 to 3 million votes.
President Obama’s support practically collapsed — he brought in about 9 million fewer votes than in 2008. Had Romney been able to build on McCain¹s overall base, he could have won the popular vote and possibly the White House.
I can think of a couple of theories to explain Romney’s underperformance in total votes. One is that many conservatives refused to vote for a moderate Northeastern former governor who was the prime catalyst for a huge government health plan in his state.
The second theory is less attractive. Many Republican voters may have refused to support a member of the LDS faith.
Third, it is clear Republicans must crack the code of appealing to minorities. They lost African-Americans, as usual. But the GOP also performed terribly with Hispanics and — to my surprise – with Asian-Americans.
Somehow, Republicans have ended up on the wrong end of some “us vs. them” notion regarding race that is totally unjustified but apparently has some currency of perception.
This issue may have to become the top priority, because it is by far the best way to change the electoral math. If Republicans want to have an electoral future, it is time for a Manhattan Project on breaking down the racial barriers in a durable fashion.
Finally, I have also concluded that George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” has been criticized far too much. In this race, Mitt Romney did not have a rhetorical or programmatic shield to protect him from the usual charge of Republican apathy toward the plight of ordinary Americans (and minority Americans).
George W. Bush’s campaign was able to argue effectively for the role of civil society in addressing the problems of those who fall behind.
In Britain, David Cameron argued from similar premises with his Big Society (as opposed to Big Government) and became prime minister. Back in Bush’s first term, I can recall NPR liberals complaining about the compelling nature of the conservative social-science arguments on the ability of marriage and family to blunt social pathologies, increase economic mobility, and break cycles of poverty. I didn’t hear many of those arguments this time around. I think it is time to revisit them.
Hunter Baker is associate professor of political science at Union University and author of “The End of Secularism and Political Thought: A Student’s Guide.”