Falling short in a presidential cycle inevitably sparks a period of soul searching in the losing party. In 1988, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’s crushing defeat at the hands George H. W. Bush left Democrats wondering if they’d ever win a national election again. Of course, that period of self-reflection didn’t linger too far into the 1990s, but then returned vengefully after 2004 when Sen. John Kerry failed to stop an unpopular President George W. Bush from securing a second term.
At the moment, it’s the shortcomings of another former Massachusetts governor that are on Republicans’ minds. Mitt Romney received the lowest share of the fast-growing Latino vote than any Republican nominee has in the last three election cycles. His numbers for women and Asian voters weren’t far behind. Romney’s campaign was out-fought on the ground and out-thought on TV.
“The Republican brand is dying, many of our strategists are incompetent, and we still design campaigns to prevail in the America of 25 years ago,” Mike Murphy wrote in Time Magazine. Murphy, who declined to be interviewed for this article, isn’t exactly winning plaudits from his colleagues for speaking out.
“Everybody always focuses on the consultants, but what about the candidates?” asks Jim Innocenzi, a Virginia-based media consultant with Sandler-Innocenzi. “There are some really flawed candidates out there, and I think at the end of the day—win or lose—the candidates have to take some share of the blame or the credit.”
Never mind the candidates. Look at what the party is advocating, says veteran pollster Whit Ayres. “This is a much deeper problem which involves the worn-out business model that Republicans are presenting to the nation,” he says. “We have a business model that sold very well for 25 years, and like any good business you adapt to the changing times and the changing market. That’s the challenge we face right now— adapt the business model that we have to a new electorate.”
Ayres isn’t alone in advocating for a change of ideas. As 2013 dawned, Georgia Rep. Tom Price (R) called for “redstate leadership” to be installed on Capitol Hill, a gauntlet thrown down in front of his House bosses, who hail from Ohio and Virginia. It points to a divide within the party that some have likened to a civil war, not simply because of the heated internal debate but also because the GOP seems to be fracturing along a metaphoric Mason-Dixon line.
Sure, there’s always a bit of rancor between friends on the Hill, but it’s not just the odd office holder or consultant signaling concern with the GOP’s current direction. It’s notable that the presidential campaign was run by Boston-based strategists, and yet Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is turning to several prominent Southerners for a way forward. More Latino support? Better online targeting? Better candidates? Priebus wants answers, and he’s formed a five-person exploratory committee to execute the search.
Notably, of the fve asked to come up with recommendations, only former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer could be called a Yankee. Zori Fonalledas is a Puerto Rico national committeewoman, Glenn McCall holds the same position for South Carolina and strategist Sally Bradshaw is based in Florida. The last of Priebus’s quintuplet, Henry Barbour, who consulted for Romney last cycle, is ensconced in Mississippi. But he wasn’t about to characterize the informal committee’s work as a kind of consultant cull.
“The Republican Party’s a bottom-up party, [and] people are going to run their campaigns the way they want to. I don’t think anybody in Washington should try to tell them who to hire unless somebody in Washington’s paying for it,” says Barbour, sounding a lot like his Uncle Haley. “That said, our candidates can be better trained, [and] if consultants have a track record of winning primaries and losing generals there’s nothing wrong with that being part of their Google record, if you will.”
Barbour recognizes there’s a problem. “It doesn’t do any good to have somebody win the primary, and the day they won the primary is the day the race is just about over,” he says. “I think we got a lot of people, myself included, who know a thing or two about campaigns. Let’s put together a smart, executable plan that’s going to help us win elections.”