After Romney, what now for the GOP?

President Obama and the first family (above) exit Air Force One on Wednesday after returning from Chicago.
President Obama and the first family (above) exit Air Force One on Wednesday after returning from Chicago.
Posted: November 09, 2012

ON DAY ONE of the post-Mitt Romney era, the nation's true Republican leader - that would be radio's Rush Limbaugh - tried to make sense of it all for his 14 million or so "Dittohead" listeners in a voice that alternated between stress and bafflement.

"It's being said once again that the Republicans have an outreach problem, that we don't have Hispanics, we don't have blacks and we don't have women and we don't have . . . ," Limbaugh trailed off. "OK, fine. We don't. What are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to embrace amnesty [for undocumented immigrants]?"

Over the course of his monologue, the radio icon asked again Wednesday if Republicans should "embrace illegals" to woo Latinos. And as for the party's gender gap: "If we're not getting the female vote, do we become pro-choice; do we start handing out birth-control pills? Is that what we have to do?"

For Limbaugh, the question was rhetorical, as he insisted that the party's answer is not a move to the soft center but instead to "Conservatism, with a capital C," advancing the far-right argument that Romney fell short against President Obama because he was too liberal. But in just four minutes, the movement's guru encapsulated the debate over its foggy future that is tearing the Republicans apart on the day after Obama captured a second term.

You don't need to be a wizard like election-prognosticator Nate Silver to see that the Republican Party has a math problem, on two levels. While Republicans continue to control the U.S. House and many state legislatures, including Pennsylvania's, when it comes to the White House, the party has a losing hand. Since the dawn of the 1990s, Democrats have won four of the last six presidential elections and won the popular vote in five of them.

But the underlying arithmetic is even more devastating. Exit polls from Tuesday emphasized the "old" in the Grand Old Party. Romney won a landslide victory among white voters, with whom Obama (39 percent) actually ran worse than 1988 landslide loser Michael Dukakis. And the former Massachusetts governor also won 55 percent of all voters 65 and older. But white voters continued their steady decline to 72 percent of the total electorate, down another two points from 2008.

So where Obama won the election was in a landslide of everybody else - a rainbow coalition that featured blacks, Latinos, college students and educated professionals, but was not limited to those groups. For example, one survey found that gays and lesbians were 5 percent of the electorate and voted 77 percent for Obama. Another found the president getting 73 percent of the Asian-American vote, a gain from 2008. Electoral wins for gay-marriage advocates in two states and marijuana legalization in two others were also signs of a shifting political breeze.

Most experts say Romney's lack of support among the nation's fastest-growing demographic group, Latinos, was the real game-changer of 2012, delivering battleground states Nevada, New Mexico and possibly Florida to the Dems. On Tuesday, Obama increased his huge edge among this bloc, holding Romney to just 27 percent.

Chris Mottola, the veteran Philadelphia-based GOP political consultant who most recently produced ads for the Republican National Committee, noted that in 2004 George W. Bush won 44 percent of the Latino vote and that if that had happened again, Romney would have been elected president. He said the hardening immigration stance of the Limbaugh-listening Republican base over the last decade - delivered with what he called "a body language" that puts off Hispanic voters, who are here legally - has been devastating.

"I think the party has got to do something akin to the Dream Act," said Mottola, referring to proposals to create a path to citizenship for undocumented children who succeed in college or the military - a plan that once had some GOP support before the party's tea-party turn. But he also said Republicans need to find a way to reach another key group that broke heavily for Obama: unmarried working women.

Mottola said that Republicans won't change their anti-abortion platform, which is a deal-breaker for some female voters, but that it can emphasize its opposition to domestic violence, bulk up on equal pay and emphasize education. He added: "They need to say, 'I get it. I'm listening.' "

But the party didn't help itself when Senate candidates Todd Akin (Missouri), Richard Mourdock (Indiana) and Tom Smith (Pennsylvania) - once favored, but losers on Tuesday - made comments on rape and pregnancy that outraged many women. "I suspect they will continue to yield to the fringe," said Michael Smerconish, the Philly-based radio host who recently left the Republican Party to become an independent. "There is a reason Smith, Mourdock and Akin all lost. The current thinking of the GOP . . . is win the battle even if it means losing the war."

Mark Schweiker, the moderate Bucks County Republican who served briefly as Pennsylvania governor in the early 2000s, agreed that on the presidential level his party is doing a bad job connecting to daily concerns of female voters, especially on school issues. He noted that calls by some of the GOP candidates in the primaries to eliminate the Department of Education frightened many parents, especially those who have children with special needs.

"My feeling is that GOP governors will show the future course, and bring about public-policy remedies," said Schweiker, citing New Jersey's bombastic but more-centrist Gov. Christie, who won kudos for his bipartisan outreach to Obama after Hurricane Sandy. And he was dismissive of the talk-radio approach. "Rush Limbaugh's menu, one could argue, is one that ought to be taken off the table," he said.

That is the crux of the matter for the Republican Party looking ahead for the course of 2012. Should it cast its lot with the likes of Christie and his pragmatism when many GOP primary voters, especially in the deep-red South, likely will blame him for putting Obama back in office? Or should it look toward a Limbaugh-approved candidate like Rick Santorum, offering red meat on issues like gay marriage to the party's ever shrinking white base?

The only thing everyone can agree on is what Fox News' Bill O'Reilly said Tuesday night: "The white establishment is now the minority."


Contact Will Bunch at 215-854-2957 or bunchw@phillynews.com. Read his blog at Attytood.com. Follow him on Twitter @Will_Bunch.

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