Evangelical leaders and conservative activists have a simple message for establishment Republicans about Mitt Romney’s failed presidential bid: We told you so.Actually, this is nonsense. Mitt Romney lost because he failed to win enough voters outside of the GOP's base coalition—not because he failed to energize the GOP base. For example, in 2008, John McCain won white evangelicals by a 50-point margin. In 2012, Romney won those voters by a 57-point margin—a seven-point gain. (As a share of the total vote, white evangelicals were 26 percent in both years.)
After nearly two weeks of listening to GOP officials pledge to assert greater control over the party and its most strident voices in the wake of Romney’s loss, grass-roots activists have begun to fight back, saying that they are not to blame for the party’s losses in November.
“The moderates have had their candidate in 2008 and they had their candidate in 2012. And they got crushed in both elections. Now they tell us we have to keep moderating. If we do that, will we win?” said Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader. Vander Plaats is an influential Christian conservative who opposed Romney in the Iowa caucuses 10 months ago and opposed Sen. John McCain’s candidacy four years ago.
Contrast Romney's seven-point gain in support among white evangelicals with his much smaller gain in support among everyone else: In 2008, President Obama won those voters by 26 points. In 2012, he won them by 23 points. Romney gained, but not by enough. The GOP's base wasn't enough to deliver victory.
Nonetheless, many Republicans have convinced themselves that their ideas and positions would have triumphed if they had only been given a chance. For example:
Ted Cruz, a tea party favorite, trounced Texas’s establishment candidate in a primary on his way to becoming the second Hispanic Republican in the Senate, and the battle he waged in the Lone Star State epitomizes the fight between the two sides. Although he is considered a rising star with a personal biography that GOP leaders wish to promote, Cruz falls squarely in the camp that thinks Romney was not conservative enough and did not fully articulate a conservative contrast to President Obama, except during the first presidential debate.I don't know what debates he was watching, but in the debates that I saw, Mitt Romney did everything he could to Etch A Sketch his way into the middle. The biggest difference is that in the first debate, President Obama didn't push back on Romney's effort to reinvent himself. As a result, Romney started gaining in the polls. But by the second debate, the Romnesia pushback was in full swing, and Romney wilted because he couldn't credibly distance himself from the conservative baggage he'd picked up during the primary. His short-lived polling surge had ended—and the reason is that his Etch A Sketch ultimately couldn't erase the image of Severely Conservative Mitt.
“It was the one time we actually contested ideas, presented two viewpoints and directions for the country,” he said at the Federalist Society’s annual dinner in Washington. “And then, inevitably, there are these mandarins of politics, who give the voice: ‘Don’t show any contrasts. Don’t rock the boat.’ So by the third debate, I’m pretty certain Mitt Romney actually French-kissed Barack Obama.”
And let's not forget, the biggest moment in the second debate was when Romney stumbled over Benghazi—an attack straight from the conservative playbook. It may sound like a great attack inside the right-wing bubble, but confronted with reality, it blew up in Romney's face.
If being more conservative would have won the race for Mitt Romney, he would have been winning the race during the primary season. But the one time that he appeared to potentially have a shot of making this a competitive campaign was when he veered to the left. So the real lesson here for Republicans is that they should look to Democrats—not conservatives—for how to appeal to more Americans, at least when it comes to presidential elections. After all, it's been Democrats—not conservatives—who have won more votes in five out of the last six presidential elections.