It's popular sport this time of year—and particularly so in this cycle—to pull out the pundits' predictions and mock their inaccuracy. So, let's pause one final time this cycle and look briefly at the dogs that didn't bark:
Our diverse polyglot no longer can be considered a center-right country. Actually, there has been little movement on that front, and what movement has occurred has been rightward in direction. Republicans still control the House. They're up to 30 governors now and a clear majority of state legislatures. The Arkansas legislature, which hadn't been under Republican control since Reconstruction, flipped to Republican this year.
All the $2 billion in campaign advertising was geared to persuade a miniscule percentage of voters in Ohio and Virginia who hadn't made up their minds. The election was called nationally before it was called in Ohio, which means Ohio didn't matter at all. And nearly one in seven American voters said events in the final week, including the president's handling of Hurricane Sandy, strongly influenced their votes.
The economy was supposed to be Romney's hole card. All he had to do was wait for the jobs report to come out on the first Friday of every month. See? Still over 8 percent. Still no progress. Still $16 trillion in debt. Still highest numbers of people on food stamps and welfare ever.
Only, the economy is never a safe bet for candidates. It doesn't affect everyone the same, its problems and solutions are little understood and it puts the challenger in a position of hoping things stay bad or get worse. When they didn't, when unemployment fell below 8 percent, Romney found himself vulnerable. Suddenly, the right track/wrong track readings stabilized—President Obama had been 25 points underwater as recently as August in some surveys; he was about six under on election day—and Romney's Big Issue, was, at best, a nonissue.
So what were the gut shots? What were the numbers Romney simply couldn't overcome? It wasn't the likeability gap the media kept pointing to. President George W. Bush never achieved much on this measure either, and he won two terms. It wasn't Romney's varied and changing opinions on abortion. He kept prolife, profamily voters in the tent—both married men and married women voted for him in far higher numbers than did singles.
It was the lopsided margins the president ran up among a few key—and, for him, core—constituencies. President Obama won 80 percent of non-whites, 93 percent of African-Americans and 71 percent of Hispanics. He won among women overall, although by a smaller margin than in 2008. He won social moderates, fiscal moderates and anyone who thought the country was going in at least a decent direction.
So how do Republicans recover?
They get their first chance this week, when Congress returns to address the fiscal cliff. They need not pre-emptively agree to raise taxes, but they do need to ensure Speaker of the House John Boehner has enough room to negotiate so the blame—if this fails—won't rest entirely on him. Americans understand that he and the president have a complicated relationship, and they don't demand capitulation. But they do demand reasonableness. Republicans must appear reasonable, and they must appear to negotiate in good faith.
For Republicans, the blame game is in full force. It was communications. It was mechanics of the campaign. It was outreach. It was social conservatives. It was economic conservatives. If Republicans kicked everyone out of the party the blamers suggest, there wouldn't be much of a party left.
On the other hand, it can't keep losing female voters by double digits, the youth vote by 20 points, and Hispanics by 40 and hope to win the White House. They must moderate on immigration reform. Find a way to let in the workers we need, treat them humanely, and impose reasonable expectations on them. We're not going to deport 12 million people. We're not going to seal our nearly 2,000-mile southern border. We're not going to stop being the Promised Land for immigrants, and we shouldn't try to be.
Find something that works. Find something that can be presented as a reasonable alternative to the present perceived hostility toward immigrants. They're God's children, too—a point that doesn't get made enough—and their path and reasons for coming to America are not so different from those of our ancestors. Moreover, 50,000 Hispanics turn 18 every single month. Republicans' present approach doesn't add up or make sense or portend future electoral success.
Same goes for women and young people. Republicans can be principled on abortion without going all Todd Akin on the electorate. They can stand for traditional marriage in their churches and let those who want a piece of paper from the courthouse pursue it. The key is respect. Stable families, however constructed, tend to vote Republican.
They can make it fun again—even exciting—to be a Republican. They can tap into the very real libertarian strain that has gained significant popularity on college campuses. Ask young people why they don't vote Republican. It's not because they buy into top-down government control. It's because they see Republicans invading their bedrooms, condemning their lifestyles, preaching one thing then doing another.
If this sounds vague, it's because it is. It's hard to know where the center lies anymore. But it's important Republicans find out—and soon. The fiscal cliff is real—it's not just something Congress must address this month. And Democrats, particularly President Obama, certainly don't have a plan to pull back from it. It's up to Republicans to save the country—and they'll need to address these issues if they are to get the chance.