First of all, this is not an article about why the Republicans lost. The answer to that question is pretty obvious, and they know it; they’ve painted themselves into a corner as the party of angry scared old straight white misogynist guys. That’s a very narrow demographic that’s dying out rapidly.
No, this is an article about why the Republicans didn’t realize they were losing, and reacted with such anger and shock when reality hit them on election night.
Let’s start by going back to 2004, when Karl Rove sneered at the “reality-based community”:
[Rove] said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
The Romney campaign was run on a similar basis, with one of their pollsters memorably saying “…we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers”. Romney followers agreed. When a protestor tried to raise the issue of anthropogenic climate change during a town hall meeting, Romney supporters literally drowned out the truth with chants of “USA! USA!”. They didn’t even want Romney to answer the point, and he obligingly ignored it and changed the subject.
Meanwhile, much of the hatred for Obama was based on falsehoods and conspiracy theories. He was a Kenyan Muslim with Communist parents who faked Bin Laden’s death, and he was working with the United Nations to round up Republicans, take their guns away, and have them executed—or so many apparently believed, in spite of the lack of evidence. Just days before the election, Donald Trump was still wigging out about Obama’s birth certificate, a document that was released and authenticated years ago.
Republicans also seemed to view consistency as an unnecessary inconvenience; as another spokesman put it:
“Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch-A-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all of it over again.”
The sense I got was that the Etch-a-Sketch was practically shaken to pieces. It wasn’t just that Romney’s positions changed from year to year or month to month, or even week to week; they were inconsistent even in the space of a single debate. He’d say something very reasonable, then a few minutes later he’d say something else that was completely inconsistent with his earlier statement. For example, in the second debate, Romney said:
We have not made the progress we need to make to put people back to work. That’s why I put out a five-point plan that gets America 12 million new jobs in four years and rising take-home pay.
But then later in the very same debate, he laughed and said:
Government does not create jobs. Government does not create jobs.
It’s not for nothing that people joked that he was the quantum candidate. It wasn’t even clear that Romney’s platform was the Republican platform; sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t.
Meanwhile, there’s a right wing media environment that’s pretty much entirely separate from the rest of the media world. And one of the things that the right wing media pretty much universally agreed on was that the opinion polls were drastically underestimating Mitt Romney’s popularity. Steve Forbes took to the pulpit in his magazine to explain:
Mitt Romney will win big tonight. His popular vote margin will be between 3 – 5%. He will win the Electoral College I believe by a vote of 321 to 217, and with luck, even more. […] One of the big Wednesday morning stories will be why most of the polls didn’t have this right. The basic answer is their model. Incredibly, in the face of contrary evidence, a number of polls used the 2008 model for this election although there was little objective evidence that those turnouts would hold for this contest. This time – and early voting confirms this – the relative Democrat/Republican split is almost even. In 2008, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a good margin. Moreover Romney is well ahead among independents, which Obama carried four years before. That’s why his popular vote margin will be 3 points or more.
Romney was sure he would win. So sure he’d win that he didn’t bother to write a concession speech. So sure, his staffers went live with a Romney administration transition web site, and started planning the inauguration. So sure, he had spent $25,000 for a big firework display in the Boston harbor to celebrate his win.
Why didn’t Republicans believe the polls? It turns out to be those “independents” again:
Independents. State polls showed Romney winning big among independents. Historically, any candidate polling that well among independents wins. But as it turned out, many of those independents were former Republicans who now self-identify as independents. The state polls weren’t oversampling Democrats and undersampling Republicans – there just weren’t as many Republicans this time because they were calling themselves independents.
This, to me, sounds like what UK opinion pollsters call the Shy Tory Factor. At a certain point, right wing parties become so incredibly embarrassing to the people who vote for them, that they like to pretend they’re not doing so. In America, the Shy Tory is known as a Denialican, as listed in The 24 Types of Libertarian. They call themselves libertarians, but they vote Republican. This time around they were easily spotted by their Ron Paul bumper stickers.
Climate change denial, redefining rape, creationism, First Amendment denial and the “War on Christmas”, anti-abortion campaigning that increases the number of lives destroyed… it’s all very embarrassing when you’re someone who’s really only there for the talk of small government, self-reliance and fiscal responsibility. And if you look at the party’s actual record on small government and fiscal responsibility, it’s even more embarrassing. Is it any wonder that intelligent Republicans don’t want to call themselves Republicans any more?
So now the election is over, Mitt Romney isn’t The White Horse, and the question I find myself asking is what happens next. Not for the country—I’m pretty sure we’ll just get four more years of watered-down moderate Republicanism. No, what happens next for the Republican party? In the cold light of day, perhaps ideas like factual accuracy, consistency, and a touch of humility no longer seem quite so laughable. But do they have the determination they will need to eject the racist, homophobic and misogynist nutcases so that they can one day stand a chance of appealing to more than half the voting population?
I’m doubtful, not least because it seems the modern Republican party was built on the back of mail-order snake oil sales. Saving the party in the long run will involve alienating many of its most loyal voters in the short term. Do they have the nerve to try?