There are no excuses for losing last night's election.
One can blame Hurricane Sandy for disrupting Romney's momentum; one can blame or the impact of negative advertising or media bias. One can credit the president's vaunted ground game, which turned out to be every bit as good as advertised. But this was a race that should never have been close.
The economy may have been showing feeble signs of life in the last couple of months, but it is hardly robust. No president had won reelection with unemployment above 7 percent since Franklin Roosevelt; it is now 7.9 percent. Three-quarters of voters thought the economy's performance is poor or just fair. Throw in a health-care law that voters opposed 49 percent to 43, turmoil overseas, and assorted scandals, and an observer from Mars would have said that there was no way Romney could lose.
Yet Romney not only lost, he lost decisively.
There will be temptations to blame a poor candidate or a campaign that squandered several opportunities. And it is true that Romney was a flawed candidate, and his campaign's strategy proved imperfect, too. He failed to press his advantage after the first debate, and seemed to switch positions at a whim.
But the Republican party's problems go much deeper.
This represents the fifth time in the last six elections that Republicans have lost the popular vote, and fourth time in those six that they've lost the electoral vote and the presidency. And although Republicans held the House last night, they actually lost seats in the Senate, of which they were widely favored to win control at the beginning of the year. Clearly, something is wrong.
Much of the media will jump to the conclusion that the Tea Party is to blame for Republican losses. Yet tea-party candidates actually did well overall. In the House, fewer than five members of the Tea Party Caucus lost reelection.
On the Senate side, tea-party favorite Richard Mourdock went down to defeat in Indiana, a state Romney was carrying by a big margin. In Missouri, Todd Akin threw away one of the most winnable Senate seats in the country. But Akin, contrary to media wisdom, was never a tea-party candidate. During the primaries, most tea-party groups backed one of his opponents. Akin won because he had strong support from social conservatives while the other candidates split the more economically conservative vote. Meanwhile, Mourdock's self-inflicted wounds were not a result of his tea-party background.
Besides, even if you try to blame the Tea Party for Indiana or Missouri, what do you say about Wisconsin? Tommy Thompson was the quintessential moderate establishment candidate; he'd defeated two tea-party–backed primary alternatives. He still couldn't beat one of the most left-wing Democrats in the country.
Tea-party voters would do well to realize that simply being anti-establishment is not enough for a candidate. Supporting a candidate with the charisma and talents of a Ted Cruz or a Jeff Flake makes sense. Supporting a Richard Mourdock simply because he shares similar political views doesn't work as well.
It's also important that Democratic efforts to turn the Ryan budget and Medicare into a bludgeon failed. Democratic gains in the House were negligible; nearly all Republicans who voted for the Ryan budget were reelected. Heck, Paul Ryan himself was reelected to his House seat. Even in states such as Florida, exit polls showed Romney fighting President Obama to a draw on the issue of Medicare reform.
Asked if government does too much or should do more, exit polls showed that voters said "too much" by a margin of 51 percent to 44. Voters certainly seem receptive to a small-government message, at least in some respects, even when what appears to be somewhat more liberal and Democratic electorate is being polled.
So what went wrong? First, demographics. This election is testimony to the fact that Republicans cannot survive by being the party of old white men. The white share of the electorate has steadily declined for the last several elections, and this time around, whites accounted for just 72 percent of the vote.
Other demographic changes worked against Republicans as well. For example, single women now outnumber married women in the electorate, and they favored Obama by roughly 30 points. The gender gap overall was bigger this year than in 2008. Moreover, the youth vote was larger this year than in 2008, and Obama dominated that too. American voters have changed, but Republicans haven't changed with them.
Republicans must face up to the fact that their hard-line stance on immigration is disqualifying their candidates with Hispanics. Whereas George W. Bush once carried 44 percent of the Latino vote, Mitt Romney couldn't crack 35 percent. To see why Romney appears to have essentially tied in Florida, for example, just look to Obama's margin among non-Cuban Hispanics. Similarly, the growing Hispanic vote clearly cost Romney both Nevada and Colorado.
President Obama is likely to push immigration reform in his second term, and Republicans are going to have to find how to address the issue in a way that will not cost them the Latino vote for generations to come.
Second, social issues continue to hurt Republicans with women, young voters, and suburbanites. The problem is not just a matter of their stance on the issues, but their tone. It's not just that Republicans oppose abortion or gay marriage, but that they often sound intolerant and self-righteous in doing so. Romney himself may not have put much emphasis on social issues, but the Republican brand was too easily associated with the words of Todd Akin.
Christian conservatives appear to have supported Romney by roughly the same margins they had previous Republican candidates. Exit polls suggest he won more than two-thirds of regular churchgoers. But their support couldn't overcome Romney's losses among economically conservative, socially moderate voters in the suburbs. Republican candidates seem culturally out of touch with a large swath of the electorate.
The GOP compounded this by indulging mindless "birther" theories throughout much of the campaign, and by failing to offer a positive, hopeful agenda for the future. In the end, swing voters were turned off.
Over the next few weeks, the experts will undoubtedly pick apart the exit polls and the precinct-by-precinct results, but it isn't hard to see that Republicans are going to have to do some serious soul searching in several respects, or this defeat will just be the beginning.