Commentary Magazine


Candidates, Not Message or Tactics, Will Determine 2016 Outcome

Republican National Committee Chair Reince Preibus deserves kudos from his party for the exhaustive report produced by his staff about what the party needs to do to recover from its defeat last November. The “Growth and Opportunity Project” is must reading for Republicans who continue to grouse about the party’s problems amid recriminations about Mitt Romney’s loss. It contains valuable insights that ought to be heeded by conservatives about how to win elections in the future. Its sections on messaging, fundraising, voter registration, technology, turnout efforts, outreach to neglected sections of the electorate like Hispanics and youth voters and candidate selection all reflect both an honest assessment of what went wrong and what needs be done in the future to ensure the GOP returns to majority status. Other suggestions like limiting presidential candidate debates during the primaries, streamlining the nominating process and moving up the date of the national convention are also smart.

It’s not clear yet whether ornery conservatives who resent the idea of a party rebranding will now start calling Preibus a RINO for suggesting some things have to change if a Republican is going to win the White House in the foreseeable future. To the extent that they believe–as some speakers at CPAC seemed to suggest–all the GOP needs to do is to ignore the problems and simply be more faithful to conservative ideology, they are part of the problem rather than the solution. As Our Pete Wehner and Michael Gerson wrote in their seminal article on the future of the Republicans in the March issue of COMMENTARY (which was quoted in the RNC report), serious thought must be given to rethinking the way the party approaches elections and some issues without abandoning its principles.

But the debate about this necessary report should not overlook one salient fact. No matter how smart the Republicans get in the next four years, they won’t win the presidency back until they nominate a better candidate than their opponents. That may seem to be such an obvious conclusion that it doesn’t merit discussion, let alone debate. But even as Republicans are rightly urged to heed the conclusions of the RNC report, it is still worth remembering.

It’s easy and fun to spin out counter-factual scenarios and to imagine different results. Yet even if the Republicans had not bored everyone silly with nearly two dozen candidate debates that drove the discussion to the margins rather than the center; if their convention wasn’t overshadowed by hurricane coverage; if their get-out-the-vote effort not been a fiasco; and their candidate hadn’t alienated Hispanics or failed to connect with young voters, Mitt Romney was not going to defeat Barack Obama.

This was more the function of Obama’s strengths as a historic president with a built-in advantage with the media than it was of Romney’s weaknesses. Romney was, after all, the most electable of all the Republican contenders and it’s doubtful that any of his competitors would have done as well as he did.

But not even a Republican Party that was technologically up-to-date and appealing to Hispanics rather than turning them off with threats of “self-deportation” would have been strong enough to overcome Obama, especially with a candidate like Romney who lacked the ability to connect with ordinary Americans (a trait that was only exacerbated by his fatal “47 percent” gaffe).

None of this should serve as an argument in favor of ignoring the RNC report, whose conclusions should be heeded if the GOP is going to continue to compete in the future. Building the party is, however, not quite the same thing as winning a presidential election, which hinges on two specific personalities more than it does on the strengths of their parties.

Fortunately for the Republicans they now have a deep bench from which to choose a better candidate than Romney. Equally fortunate for them is the fact that Barack Obama won’t be on the ballot in 2016 and if Hillary Clinton fails to run, it will be the Democrats who will probably be fielding a less able vote getter.

However, no one can tell yet whether the GOP contenders will pan out or if some Democrat surges to the fore as Obama did in 2008. Even if the RNC achieves all of its stated goals and Republicans embrace immigration reform, it won’t matter if the next matchup is as lopsided as it was in 2012.