In the days that followed Mitt Romney’s loss to Barack Obama, postmortems were written and recriminations were slung. Theories about what led to the GOP’s stunning loss, a defeat not foreshadowed by national public opinion surveys, and what was to be done about it in the coming cycles proliferated. One of the hypotheses that explained the scope of the Republican ticket’s loss to the incumbent president was the theory that unexpected turnout in urban centers helped Obama run up the final score.
“The surprise was some of the turnout, some of the turnout especially in urban areas, which gave President Obama the big margin to win this race,” former vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan told Wisconsin-based reporters.
“There is some anecdotal evidence to back up the analysis that Mr. Obama was helped by his appeal in the nation’s population centers,” The New York Times reported in 2012. “In Philadelphia and Ohio, for example, local news reports have documented dozens of city precincts where Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan failed to get a single vote. And in Ohio, turnout among blacks, many of whom live in urban areas, increased significantly over 2008.”
According to David Axelrod, Mitt Romney congratulated the president on his ability to turn out his urban base voters in his concession call to the president. Axelrod contended that Obama, having won a historic second term in office with a majority of the popular vote, scowled at the imagined implication that Romney was referring exclusively to the minority vote.
“‘You really did a great job of getting out the vote in places like Cleveland and Milwaukee,’ in other words, black people,’” Axelrod recalls Obama saying on the night of his victory. “That’s what he thinks this was all about.”
That pettiness aside, The Times is correct: There is evidence to suggest that the GOP suffers in the state-level popular vote when Democrats are able to turn out urban voters who typically do not vote in midterm election cycles. The Republican Party is looking to correct for that imbalance ahead of 2016.
A fascinating report in Reuters detailed the GOP’s effort to recruit “a few good losers” – smart and capable Republican candidates to run for local office in urban municipalities – who aren’t being called up to win their respective races but to lose gracefully, and to reduce Democratic vote totals in the process. As a bonus, these “good losers” will develop the campaign apparatus and increase their name recognition; advantages that will serve them if they run for office again in forthcoming cycles.
“In 1980, Republicans won 48 percent of the vote in the 100 largest U.S. counties, according to James Gimpel, a University of Maryland political scientist. In 2012, that share had shrunk to 38 percent,” Reuters reporter Andy Sullivan revealed. “That is an increasing liability.”
Social conservatives are, however, not going to like the GOP’s strategy to appeal to urban independents and persuadable Democrats:
Some Republican activists say that if the party really wants to do better in urban areas, then it needs to tread more carefully on hot-button issues like gay marriage and abortion, which can alienate voters who tend to be more progressive on social issues.
“Straying from the party platform is expected in Chicago. If we held candidates to a litmus test, I’m not even sure I would be here,” said Huxley, who heads the local chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay-friendly group.
But these outreach efforts can be sabotaged by more strident voices. Republicans marched in Denver’s gay-pride parade in 2013, one of the city’s biggest civic events, but sat out last year after blowback from other Republicans.
There is no question, however, that Republican candidates will fail to draw support from city-dwellers if they focus on divisive social issues. A libertarian approach to tax policy, government interference, and criminal justice reform, augmented perhaps by a neoconservative strategy of combatting terrorism overseas so that it never reaches American shores will be a far more appealing message to the average voting urbanite than opposition to legal marijuana and same-sex marriage.
As New York Post opinion writer Nicole Gelinas observed following the GOP’s midterm wave victories last year, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder provides his party with a model approach designed to appeal to urban voters.
The politically traditional thing would’ve been to scare state lawmakers into approving a bailout, kicking Detroit’s impossible promises to another governor.
But Snyder was brave enough to admit the obvious: Detroit could never pay back its debt.
He was also politically savvy enough to see that voters’ attitudes have changed, too. Post-2008, the Michigan populace would have rightly seen a Detroit bailout as a rescue of bad banks, not citizens.
If Snyder runs for president, he can say that, while Democrats talk about screwing Wall Street, he’s actually done it. The city’s most sophisticated creditors ended up getting pennies on the dollar when Detroit finished with its bankruptcy case last Friday.
The GOP is building up the farm team by recruiting a stable of sacrificial lambs. Though they will be led to the slaughter in 2016, they might help win the White House for Republicans. What’s more, these kamikaze candidates will earn the gratitude of the party when they again run for office as a campaign veteran. Maybe the GOP is finally learning to play the long game?