In the final couple of weeks of the presidential campaign, we had a big debate over the nature of the American electorate, played out through polling criticism on both sides of the political divide. This came down to fundamental assumptions about which election cycle proved to be a realignment, and which turned out to be the anomaly.  Many conservatives — myself among them, to be sure — operated on the assumption that the 2008 election had been the anomaly, driven by the fiscal crisis, and corrected in the 2010 midterm elections.  The Left assumed that the fiscal crisis in 2008 had realigned the electorate toward greater government interventionism, and that the 2010 cycle was the anomaly, driven by a partisan fight over health care and the lack of a presidential contender at the top of the ticket.

Clearly, conservatives lost that argument last night, at least in large part, as John Ziegler wrote in the immediate aftermath.  That was borne out by the final calculation in the exit polling as well as the vote itself.  The partisan split in the electorate was 38/32/29, nearly identical to 2008.  We argued that Barack Obama and Democrats couldn’t win a base turnout election again, but they did, as evidenced by Mitt Romney’s five-point win among independents, 50/45.  Romney even lowered the gender gap from an Obama +14 in 2008 to Obama +4 in 2012, but that clearly wasn’t enough to overcome what now looks to be a significant realignment four years ago towards Democrats and not an anomaly.

This time, Republicans can’t blame the candidate, or at least they shouldn’t.  Mitt Romney ran one of the most well-organized national campaigns in recent memory within the GOP.  He raised prodigious amounts of cash, keeping pace with Obama.  The RNC followed suit, building a massive and impressive GOTV effort that really did produce a big increase in turnout — but not enough to match what Democrats did in this cycle.  Republicans blamed John McCain in 2008 and even George Bush for the bailouts, but those fig leaves are gone, and the realignment is too apparent to ignore.

That reality presents a challenge to the GOP and to conservatives.  We do not need to change our values, but we do need to find ways to communicate them in an engaging and welcoming manner.  We need to think creatively about big issues, philosophy, and how we can relate conservative values to the needs of a wider range of voters.  Conservatism cannot become constrictionism, or the realignment will continue, and it will become ever more difficult to win national elections.

This will require a new set of national leaders for the Republican Party and conservatism.  We need men and women who can think creatively, produce a positive agenda that isn’t defined by an oppositional nature, and who can eloquently communicate that agenda and the values that drive it.  That should be our focus over the next two years before we start thinking about who to nominate as the party’s presidential nominee — and if done properly, that process will naturally produce the right leader for conservatism.  And if that is done properly, too, perhaps we’ll be in position for another realignment four years from now.

Update: Some readers feel I owe them an apology for “misleading” them about polling over the last few months.  I kind of assumed that this post served as a mea culpa for getting it wrong by explaining why it happened.  Very obviously, I misread the shift in the electorate.  I wasn’t the only one who did so, but I did, and I do apologize for getting it wrong.  However, I didn’t set out to mislead anyone.  What I wrote was my honest opinion about how the polls were based on assumptions of the electorate with which I disagreed — and I’ll note that I linked to the source data every time, and that readers were certainly free to draw their own conclusions.