Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to say goodbye to the Republican Party as we know it. We’ll miss its conservative principles, its fresh-faced volunteers and its curious obsession with Ronald Reagan , who never seemed to be as conservative in reality as he is in some Republicans’ retelling.
But we can’t look to the future for the GOP until we know what killed the thing, and it isn’t the first time someone has tried to find out. After the 2012 elections, the Republican National Committee believed the party’s prospects were so dire it did a deep dive into why Democrats had won the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections. The result was a 100-plus page document dubbed “the GOP Autopsy,” a clear-eyed and definitive statement on why Republicans have lost, and how they could win again.
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Informed by focus groups, polls and multiple “listening sessions,” the autopsy identified the failures in the Mitt Romney campaign and others across the country. It declared that the GOP itself had a real and growing problem with “demographic partners,” namely women , Latinos , African Americans , Asians and young people . It also passed on the general sentiment in focus groups across the country that “Republicans don’t care about people like me.”
The solutions, the RNC said, could be found in many places, but especially among the party’s governors and other rising stars. Govs. Chris Christie , Bobby Jindal , John Kasich and Scott Walker were praised for their innovative approaches to governing. Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor , who had not yet lost reelection in his own Virginia district, got an honorable mention, as did former Gov. Bob McDonnell , who had not yet been sentenced to federal prison for corruption.
On the policy side, the autopsy had just one recommendation for Republicans: Embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. “If Hispanic Americans hear that the GOP doesn’t want them in the United States, they won’t pay attention to our next sentence.”
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Tactically, the autopsy also said Republicans needed to revamp their data strategies, perfect micro-targeting and raise lots and lots of money. It suggested “symposiums, lectures and forums” to exchange ideas with minority communities” and “a message that is non-inflammatory and inclusive to all.”
The obvious problem with the 2012 autopsy is that Republican voters in the real world didn’t want any part of it. Instead of ideas, they wanted passion. Instead of immigration, they wanted a wall. Instead of a “non-inflammatory” message, they chose a man who channeled their rage. That he tweeted a picture of himself eating a taco bowl on Cinqo de Mayo was just the gravy on the pork chop.
It’s easy to imagine what would have happened had Republican voters taken the RNC’s prescriptions to heart in 2016. They would have picked a middle-class, soft-talking, policy-wonk governor as their nominee. Maybe a Scott Walker? They would have responded to the micro-targeting, asked women to run for office, listened to surrogates of Asian-Pacific descent and gone into African-American communities just to talk politics. Most of all, they would have enacted comprehensive immigration reform — and yes, the votes were there — to put the party on solid footing with Latinos in the future.
But we all know what happened instead. Middle class Republicans decided that all the promises elected Republicans have made year after year were worthless. Factory workers who lost their jobs decided the representatives they’d elected probably wouldn’t do anything about new jobs.
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Longtime Republican voters, still frustrated with their leadership in Washington, asked themselves how many more times they had to send a message to change before someone finally listened. And some Americans, including many who hardly ever voted anymore, finally heard a voice they trusted (Mister Trump! From TV!) promising to make them proud of themselves and their country again.
They didn’t want an “experienced” governor. They didn’t need to be micro-targeted. Fundraising, media buys or positions papers made no difference to them at all.
They wanted someone to give them what they really want– a wall, a job, a country safe from terrorists, and a leader who won’t tell them they’re bad people for wanting those things. They wanted certainty in an uncertain world and a candidate who would promise them that. They wanted Donald Trump.
The autopsy for 2016 will be much shorter than the 2012 document, and here it is: Donald Trump didn’t kill the GOP. Republican voters did. But that’s a much harder problem to solve.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.
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