The Republican Path to 2016

12/11/2012 11:19 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

2012 could prove to be the best thing that ever happened to the Republican Party.

The obituaries written this week for the Grand Old Party are of course premature.

Republican optimists could with some legitimacy claim that it only fell around 100,000 votes short of the presidency and retained a healthy majority in the House of Representatives.

The true picture is more worrisome for the right of the American political spectrum.

A slow economic recovery, an incumbent with low (although not dismal) approval ratings and lukewarm public support for healthcare reform, the signature domestic achievement of the first term of Obama's presidency, should perhaps have suggested it was an electorate ripe for an alternative path.

Romney and his surrogates spent a billion dollars, and gained only Indiana (never competitive) and North Carolina, the most conservative of the swing states, from the roundly derided McCain campaign of four years ago.

Meanwhile the Republican Party managed to throw away what should have been comfortable Senate victories in Missouri and Indiana, and lost winnable races in Massachusetts and Virginia.

The result is not dissimilar to the Democrats performance in 2004.

Then a candidate from Massachusetts with clear weaknesses and a propensity to flip-flop, John Kerry lost what the Democrats believed was a winnable election against the incumbent George W. Bush.

The Democrats not only lost the presidency and the Senate that year, they also suffered the ignominy of Senate majority leader Tom Daschle being defeated in North Dakota by Republican John Thune.

The Republicans need to learn the lessons of the Democrats' defeat in 2004.

The GOP is not suddenly going to morph into a party of moderate, centrist politicians like Jon Huntsman, Michael Bloomberg or Chris Christie.

Political parties, particularly in America, are giant amorphous creatures not always governed or driven by logical calculations or reasonable argument. The supertanker isn't going to turn in a wholly different direction. However it is going to have to adjust its course to avoid hitting the electoral rocks again.

In the aftermath of the 2004 defeat, the Democrats didn't transform themselves. With the help of Howard Dean's 50-State strategy, and the groundbreaking political operation masterminded by David Plouffe and David Axelrod, they remade the party machine from the bottom up and transformed the electoral map to create a new, winning coalition.

The Republican Party needs to learn three lessons from the Democrats and from recent history.

Firstly, the GOP lost the campaign and lost the ground game.

They need to stop throwing millions of dollars at television campaign ads that based on this past election are reinforcing established perceptions of voters rather than reaching swing voters.

The GOP needs to realize that it's numbers don't add up. The 'red' states plus Ohio are not enough to win the presidency. Obama would have won even if he had lost Ohio and Florida.

If they invested a tiny proportion of that money to employ the brightest minds over a long period of time, not simply buying pieces of technology or databases, then they might have a hope of matching the Democrats in 2016.

Second, they need to pick a conservative candidate. This may sound counterintuitive. As I argued many months before this election, the electoral history of 'moderate' Republicans is abysmal. Ford, Bush Snr., Dole and McCain all lost presidential elections. Romney now joins that less-than-illustrious club.

The point is that whether it's Nixon, Reagan or Bush, conservatives are not as unpopular as they might at first seem. The most important point to remember is that if a candidate has the trust of their base, they can reach to the centre, provided they have the ability to do so. If they are a labeled 'centrist' within the party, like Romney, the efforts needed to energize the base simply turn off the centre and the result is electoral failure.

Fortunately for the Republicans, they have potential presidential candidates who are conservative and potentially electable in the form of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, senator Marco Rubio from Florida, Susanna Martinez, the governor of New Mexico, and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal. They also have a deep bench of conservative talent including Nikki Haley in South Carolina, Texas senator Ted Cruz and Wisconsin's Scott Walker.

Thirdly and finally, there has been a lot of talk already about the need to reach the Hispanic vote which made up a bigger proportion of the American electorate than ever in 2012 and which remained stubbornly loyal to Barack Obama and the Democrats.

This is again similar to the challenge faced by the Democrats in 2004 who lost a large swathe of the Hispanic vote to George Bush and the Republicans.

This won't be solved by the GOP collectively holding its nose to reluctantly pass immigration reform or indeed by picking a Hispanic nominee or running mate.

That sort of simplistic response belies a deeper malaise in the Republican outreach efforts. It's worth remembering that this isn't just about the Hispanic vote, which in itself is diverse and complex and not likely to vote on mass for a Latino candidate. In fact, Mitt Romney had stronger family heritage in Mexico (which makes up the ethnic background of the majority of the Hispanic population in the U.S.) than Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, does.

The support of Asian-Americans for Republican presidential candidates has also slipped precipitously in the last three elections, and their votes not be won by a strategy that focuses exclusively on Hispanic voters.

The Republicans need to be careful about making token gestures, either in terms of legislation or candidates. They need deep, and sustained outreach over many years and a new constructive approach to policymaking in this area if they are to be credible and successful.

It's easy to forget that the Democrats were down and out in 2004. Two years later, they swept the House and the Senate, and less than four years later nominated a candidate who became only the fifth president since 1832 (Grant, McKinley, FDR and Reagan were the others) to win 50% of the vote in two successive elections.

Like every party the Republicans can control their own destiny. It will be a question of whether they are willing to make the tough choices needed to remake a winning coalition and show the pragmatism needed to move from angry opposition to a governing majority.