Mitt Romney's loss, on a night when there were few consolations for Republicans, took many people -- including half of our political staff -- by surprise.
Republicans will now struggle to identify what went wrong, because there doesn't seem to be one simple answer. Did they err by pursuing entitlement reform, and placing its patron saint, Rep. Paul Ryan, on the ballot? It would be hard to defend this hypothesis, given Romney's stellar performance among those 65 and older, which exceeded President Bush's 2004 margins. (In all-important Florida, he won them by 19 points.) Was it their limited government philosophy? As The Washington Examiner's Philip Klein notes today, the exit polls actually reveal an electorate that wishes government would do less.
Many have noted that Democrats' margin over Republicans among Hispanic voters has grown by 17 points since 2004. This should alarm Republicans and prompt them to revisit the immigration issue. But the Latino vote does not in any way explain President Obama's decisive wins in states without significant Hispanic populations -- New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio -- that were thought to be at least a little more competitive.
Some losses can probably be blamed on the nominee. Given the uniform conservative support he enjoyed, it would be wrong to blame Romney's moderate past. On the other hand, his gaffe about the "47 percent" whom he would "never convince ... they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives" made it all too easy for Obama. In an election in which Obama's 2008 margins deteriorated with voters of both sexes, every age group and education level, and among both the married and the single, only one income level showed greater support for Obama -- the 21 percent of voters making between $30,000 and $50,000 per year. In Ohio, New Hampshire, Colorado and Virginia, Obama increased his margin with that group by between 6 and 17 points over the 2008 wave election.
Republicans will learn nothing if they simply blame everything on Romney, who was arguably the best candidate in a weak primary field. For all his own killer gaffes, he suffered greatly at the hands of others -- low-quality conservative politicians like Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin -- who helped Democrats by creating new avenues of attack against Romney and against conservative ideas in general. Nor is it just the politicians -- radio host Rush Limbaugh gave Team Obama an enormous opening when he turned the irrelevant issue of contraception into the talk of the nation.
Conservatives have principled and smart arguments to make on fiscal, economic, and yes, even social issues, given that polls show Americans increasingly identifying as pro-life. But conservatives cannot win the argument in hostile media territory if they keep simultaneously giving a platform to village idiots -- no matter how dedicated they are to the cause -- who routinely shoot off their mouths without factual basis. If not for conservative Republicans credulously nominating second-rate candidates like Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell just because they are billed as "the most conservative," this year's defeat would be much less bitter. Conservatives can win if their leaders and rank-and-file support principled and articulate candidates. They lose when they nominate dim bulbs and opportunists who profess fealty to ideas they don't understand.