Republicans face a comparable moment now. The vast majority of party strategists considered President Obama a uniquely vulnerable target, who had provoked a fierce ideological backlash from white conservatives over his stimulus and health care legislation, and who struggled against the headwind of the grudging recovery from the Great Recession. And yet, despite a narrow margin in the popular vote, Obama became the fourth Democratic nominee in the past six elections to capture at least 332 Electoral College votes. No GOP nominee since the elder Bush in 1988 has won more than the 286 that his son carried in 2004.

Like Democrats after Reagan’s 1984 landslide, most Republicans viewed Obama’s resounding 2008 victory (the most decisive for a Democrat since 1964) as a personal, not party, triumph unlikely to be repeated. From the Romney campaign to Fox News, the fundamental miscalculation in Republican ranks was that the 2008 electorate, with its huge participation by minorities and young people, was a onetime anomaly powered by Obama’s charisma and the singular excitement surrounding the first African-American nominee. Senior Romney advisers, echoed by conservative commentators, expected the electorate in 2012 to look more like 2004, when it was older and whiter and thus more evenly balanced between Republicans and Democrats.