Karl Rove

The Lessons of Defeat for the GOP

Everything from the ground game to the date of the next convention needs to be re-examined.

The GOP is undergoing the type of re-examination that occurs whenever a party loses. That useful exercise should be guided by facts. Here is some of what we know.

The media's postelection narrative is that Democrats won because of a demographic shift. There is some truth to that, but a more accurate description is that Democrats won in a smaller turnout by getting out more of their vote.

Turnout dropped by 7.9 million voters, falling to 123.6 million this year from 131.5 million in 2008. This is the first decline in a presidential election in 16 years. Only 51.3% of the voting-age population went to the polls.

While the Democratic "ground game" was effective, President Barack Obama received 90.1% of his 2008 total while Gov. Mitt Romney received 98.6% of Sen. John McCain's vote. Neither party generated a higher turnout nationally.

Tactically, Republicans must rigorously re-examine their "72-hour" ground game and reverse-engineer the Democratic get-out-the-vote effort in order to copy what works. For example, a postelection survey shows that the Democratic campaign ground game was more effective in communicating negative information. It would be good to know why—and how to counter such tactics in the future.

Republicans should also emulate the Democratic "50-state" strategy by strengthening the ground game everywhere, not just in swing states.

It will be important for the GOP to erase the data advantage Democrats may have in their targeting of potential supporters for their candidates. And local GOP organizations must persistently focus on adding to the voter rolls the millions of people likely to vote Republicans if they were registered.

Strategically, Republicans will need to frame economic issues to better resonate with middle-class families. Mr. Romney had solid views on jobs, spending, deficits, health care and energy. But even among the 59% of voters for whom the economy was their top concern, he prevailed by only four points (51% to 47%).

One reason the GOP didn't do better with its pro-growth agenda was that Mr. Romney's character and record were undermined by early, relentless personal attacks that went largely unanswered. In a world of Twitter, YouTube and cable TV, the cliché that "if you're responding, you're losing" is dead. Republican campaigns need to get better at responding, setting the record straight, and bending the argument back toward their narrative.

According to exit polls, turnout dropped among white and black Americans (by 8.3 million and 1 million, respectively) but rose among Hispanics. They added 850,000 votes to Mr. Obama's total compared with 2008. Millennials (those aged 18-29) were a larger share of the turnout than in 2008, but 176,000 fewer in number. They cast 1.5 million fewer votes for Mr. Obama than last time and 1.1 million more votes for Mr. Romney than they did for Mr. McCain. To win, the GOP must do better—much better—with Hispanics and millennials, and also with women voters.

Republicans need not jettison their principles. But they must avoid appearing judgmental and callous on social issues. Offensive comments about rape by GOP Senate candidates in Missouri and Indiana gave the media an excuse to put social issues at the election's center in a way that badly hurt the entire party, as well as costing Republicans two Senate seats.

The GOP must reduce the destructiveness of the presidential primaries. In the first place, activists can withhold support from candidates who make reckless assaults on competitors, which happened too often this time. Also, the Republican National Committee should limit the number of debates and, by showing wisdom in picking debate moderators, limit the media's ability to depict the party as a fringe group.

Another idea: Holding the convention in late August made sense when candidates relied on public financing for the general election. That will never happen again. The Romney campaign had tens of millions it couldn't spend for months until he was officially nominated on Aug. 28. Future conventions should be held as early as late June.

Then there are the conservative Super PACs, such as American Crossroads, a group I helped organize. Obama administration officials, liberal pundits and Democratic apparatchiks this past week have launched a coordinated attack designed to weaken support for conservative Super PACs. Democrats saw how these groups created more GOP victories than expected in 2010 and strongly countered Team Obama's attempt to strangle the Republican ticket this summer by spending 20% of the president's campaign budget on a TV blitz attacking Mr. Romney.

Just as they did after the successful 2010 election, groups such as Crossroads will carefully review their activities to determine what was effective and what wasn't. But Democratic attacks aren't weakening the commitment of conservative Super PAC benefactors. They're in it for the long haul and don't take direction from the left. Their attitude is: The fight goes on, beat 'em next time.

This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, November 14, 2012.