As we survey the political wreckage of 2012, it’s worth highlighting once again that Republicans lost the presidential election for two main reasons: They failed to get their best candidates to run, and their eventual nominee failed to make the case to voters. The result was a relatively lopsided defeat. In fact, if Mitt Romney had managed to swing the margin by 5 points in his direction in each and every state, he still would have lost (272 electoral votes to 266).
Nor was this because President Obama turned out massive numbers of voters to pull the level for him. Per capita, Obama actually got 9 percent fewer votes than in 2008 — a rather precipitous decline. If Romney had simply improved upon John McCain’s performance by that same amount — if he had gotten 9 percent more votes per capita than McCain did — he’d now be preparing to move into the White House. Instead, Romney got 2 percent fewer votes per capita than McCain, a result so bad that it would have seemed almost unfathomable before Election Day.
The tale was similar in the three most important swing states. In Florida, Obama got about 5 percent fewer votes per capita than in 2008, but Romney got about 5 percent fewer votes per capita than McCain. In Ohio, Obama got about 4 percent fewer votes per capita than in 2008, but Romney got about 1 percent fewer votes per capita than McCain. In Virginia, Obama got about 4 percent fewer votes per capita than in 2008, but Romney’s per-capita tally was essentially tied with McCain’s. Thus, Obama lost significant numbers of votes, but Romney failed to improve upon McCain’s per-capita tallies and generally failed even to match them.
In short, Obama didn’t win because Democrats turned out to vote. He didn’t win because he held the center. (He didn’t hold it; exit polling showed independents favoring Romney by 5 points.) He won because Republicans (and to some extent independents) stayed home. They stayed home because Romney didn’t give voice to Republican principles or attack Obama’s or record. He didn’t rebut Bill Clinton’s ludicrous (but highly effective) claim that nobody could have turned this economy around in just four years, he didn’t run as a full-spectrum (economic, social, foreign policy) Republican, and he didn’t attack Obama as the full-spectrum liberal extremist that he is. So he lost.
But while Romney could have — and should have — won, the main reason why the GOP lost was because its most attractive potential candidates weren’t on the stage during the Republican presidential debates. Why that was (and why it usually is), and how to fix it, should be a central focus for Republicans going forward.