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National Politics|By Charlie Cook, November 16, 2012

Last week’s election is open to so many interpretations, many seemingly contradictory, that it offers something for almost anyone of any ideological or partisan stripe. Let’s take a closer look at the truth behind a few of these selective interpretations.

It was a very close race; Obama (and Democrats) won a bunch of states and districts narrowly. It’s certainly true that 51 percent (rounding up from 50.5) to 48 percent is close, but since the end of World War II, five elections have been closer. Mitt Romney won only two more states (Indiana and North Carolina) than John McCain did, and even if he had won Florida, the GOP nominee would still have needed to win Ohio, Virginia, and either Colorado or Iowa, based on the sequence of the election margins.

The danger for Republicans clinging to that solace is that it sidesteps the inconvenient truth that they have now lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections, from 1992 on. For the GOP, this was more than one bad night.

It’s all Romney’s fault. It would be easy to just blame Romney, but when he finally got around to being himself, in the first debate, his numbers moved up. That was the first glimpse of the guy I met back in 1994 when he was running for the Senate. That guy was a pretty good general-election candidate. The Romney-candidate guy that was wearing his suit and a mask—necessary to win the GOP nomination—was guaranteed to have a very hard time winning the fall election, even against a president who had handled a difficult economy less than optimally.

Instead, Republicans should be asking themselves about their own party and how they took a very smart and rational guy and made him turn into a pretzel to win the nomination—a contortion that left him unable to straighten himself out in time to win in November. The nomination process has been captured by such an exotic breed within the GOP that anyone emerging from it faces significant electability challenges.

You began to see this in August of last year, in the Iowa straw poll and the Fox News debate, when Romney and his fellow contenders all refused to go along with the idea of $1 in tax increases for every $10 in spending cuts—aka a helluva deal for conservatives.

But this weakness isn’t limited to the presidential race. The GOP brand has been so damaged that it even affects Republicans who don’t have self-destructive tendencies. When Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana put grenades in their mouths and pulled the pins, the ensuing explosions and shrapnel hurt the party and other candidates as well. A fair number of moderate Democrats were able to win in some pretty red states and districts—Heidi Heitkamp in the North Dakota Senate race and Joe Donnelly in the Indiana contest, for example, as well as House incumbents in extremely Republican districts, such as John Barrow in Georgia and Jim Matheson in Utah. But moderate Republicans running on correspondingly blue Democratic turf—such as Scott Brown in Massachusetts, Linda Lingle in Hawaii, and Heather Wilson in New Mexico—were dragged down by the weight of their red jerseys.

It’s the Romney campaign’s fault. This column has sharply criticized the Romney camp’s deliberate decision not to define him early on by running biographical and testimonial ads to establish the former Massachusetts governor as someone worthy of being president. This would have effectively added a Teflon coating to protect him from the attacks that ended up defining him in such a pejorative way among swing voters in the battleground states that, even if he had won the popular vote nationally, he still probably wouldn’t have won 270 electoral votes. The scar tissue from the Bain Capital summer was too great, and this election ended up being more than just a simple referendum on President Obama and the economy.

But this explanation ignores the larger problem in the party: the nominating process that, in effect, pinned him down at the 2-yard line on the conservative end of the field rather than positioning him between the 40-yard lines.

Watching politics for 40 years now, I have seen the two major parties tend to leapfrog each other in terms of political sophistication. This state of the political art, when one party is firing on all eight (or, these days, six or even four) cylinders, seems to happen when the other party is in desperate need of a tune-up.

Democrats had a lousy economy, made some rather dubious policy choices in the past four years, and had an incumbent who chose to skip the first debate. But when it came to just about everything else, they handled things expertly, or developments went their way. Republicans had a bright candidate, but one who lacked the dexterity to handle a very challenging set of circumstances, and a party that was well out of touch with the demographic, generational, and ideological changes quietly transforming the electorate.

This article appeared in the Tuesday, November 13, 2012 edition of National Journal Daily.