The Republicans’ Road Not Taken

The Republicans’ Road Not Taken

In 2013, Republican strategists were honest about why Mitt Romney lost. They had a chance to heed the lessons—and then Trump blew it all up.


As Republican state legislatures launch a new campaign to suppress Democratic votes (cutting back on early voting in Iowa, restricting absentee voting in Georgia), it’s worth recalling that it was only eight years ago that the GOP had a completely different response to defeat. Republicans had been working to restrict voting for decades, but after Mitt Romney lost in 2012, the RNC concluded that the party had to come to terms with broadening access to voting: “Early, absentee, and online voting is here to stay,” their election postmortem declared. Republicans needed to “alter their strategy and acknowledge the trend as future reality, utilizing new tactics to gain victory on Election Day.”

Mitt Romney had gotten 47 percent of the popular vote—notably, the same percentage Donald Trump got this time. But the response in 2012 to defeat was not to double down on the Big Lie about Democratic voter fraud. Party leaders instead launched a three-month-long study of how they could become a majority party again. They called it an “autopsy.” Released in March 2013, the report was bold and uncompromising: The party had reached an “ideological cul-de-sac” by focusing on older white people. In order to win back a majority of voters, Republican candidates needed to embrace “a new brand of conservatism” and reach out to young people, women, and “ethnic minorities,” especially Latinos.

In the aftermath of defeat this time around, the GOP response was completely different. A Republican Party attorney was surprisingly honest when he told the Supreme Court at the beginning of March that Arizona needed to enact new restrictions on voting, because making it easier to vote “puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats.”

The Republicans’ share of the presidential vote, the 2012 autopsy pointed out, had been declining ever since Reagan, even when they won. Reagan got 59 percent in 1984; George H.W. Bush got 53 in 1988; George W. Bush got 51 in 2004. After that, they never won a majority.

At its root, the problem was both demographic and ideological. The Reagan base was declining as a proportion of the population; the Democratic majority recruited by Obama was made up of younger people, people of color, and women. The report, issued by RNC chair Reince Priebus, argued that Republicans could win enough of them to regain a majority, while at the same time holding fast to their pro-business, low-tax ideology.

The autopsy proposed reaching out to Latinos by endorsing comprehensive immigration reform. That was what made headlines. It argued also for appealing to Latino small-business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs, promoting “opportunity for all,” and running Latino candidates.

To appeal to young people, the autopsy argued, the party needed a new openness to gay people and gay marriage, noting that there was “a generational difference within the conservative movement” about “the treatment and the rights of gays.” It reported that, “for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be.”

The report concluded that “if our Party is not welcoming and inclusive, young people and increasingly other voters will continue to tune us out.” Throughout, it proposed encouraging a variety of views rather than requiring 100 percent fidelity to the prevailing Republican positions, especially on social issues. “Party leaders from Paul Ryan to Newt Gingrich welcomed it with fanfare,” Politico reported.

And the party had a candidate who represented the new breed of younger Latino Republican: Marco Rubio. Forty-one years old in 2012, he personified Latino upward mobility; he endorsed bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform; and he condemned discrimination against gays and lesbians. Rubio entered the 2016 primaries with high hopes, coming in first among Republican candidates in eight consecutive early national polls.

But meanwhile, the autopsy aroused a storm of protest from the Republican right, led by Rush Limbaugh. Donald Trump, not yet a candidate when the report appeared, posted a tweet ridiculing comprehensive immigration reform.

Could it have worked? Could Marco Rubio have gotten more votes than Trump did, by running as a “moderate” against Hillary Clinton? Polls had him slightly ahead of her in January 2016. Nate Silver’s Five Thirty-Eight declared, “It’s Rubio Or Bust For Republicans Who Want To Win,” predicting, “If Republicans nominate Rubio, they would have an excellent chance to beat Clinton by broadening their party’s appeal with moderates, millennials and Latinos.”

But then Trump destroyed him in the debates, dubbing him “Little Marco.” He responded by saying Trump had “small hands…and you know what they say about guys with small hands.” It didn’t work. He failed in the primaries, winning only Minnesota, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. He endorsed Trump and stuck with him even after the Access Hollywood tapes surfaced.

Party officials who proposed after 2012 that Republicans could become a majority party again set up a website: It is now defunct. is a new site, established in the 2020 election to help win swing states in the Midwest. It funds Democrats.

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