By GERALD F. SEIB
A campaign year that began with great hope for Republicans, who had ample reason to think they could finish Election Night in full control of all Washington’s levers of power, instead ended Tuesday night with the GOP in a cloud of gloom.
A Democratic president who ran with the national unemployment near or above 8% for most of the year, and with a job-approval rating below the 50% mark, managed to win another term anyway.
A golden opportunity for Republicans to take over the Senate slipped away, despite the fact the map presented the party with a target-rich field of opportunities to make gains.
The House will remain in Republican hands. But overall, the outcome was bitter for Republicans; their well-funded effort to take political control amid the most prolonged period of economic anxiety in decades fizzled. They had failed to budge the status quo.
Now the inevitable question Republicans will ask is: What went wrong?
There are certain to be rounds of recrimination and second-guessing as Republicans try to answer that question. Tea-party supporters will say the party erred by failing to nominate a standard-bearer who was a more reliable conservative than the once-moderate former governor of Massachusetts.
Moderates will say that the party’s primary process pushed nominee Mitt Romney too far to the right to win in the general election. And they will charge that tea-party foot soldiers in the House undermined the party’s brand by refusing to back House Speaker John Boehner’s efforts to strike a grand deficit-cutting bargain with President Barack Obama, opening up the party to charges of obstructionism and extremism.
But the most significant critique will be the one that says the party simply failed to catch up with the changing face of America. Exit polls showed that Mr. Romney won handily among white Americans—almost six in 10 of them—but lost by breathtaking margins among the nation’s increasingly important ethnic groups: By almost 40 percentage points among Hispanics, by almost 50 points among Asians, and by more than 80 points among African-Americans
Voters headed to the polls Tuesday in a presidential contest defined by its intensity and razor-thin margins.
Newt Gingrich, the Republican former House speaker and 2012 presidential contender, says his party faces a big “institutional challenge” in figuring out how to connect with minority voters who make up an ever-bigger part of the electorate and the country’s social fabric.
The Republican Party “simply has to learn” to appear more inclusive to minorities, particularly Hispanics, Mr. Gingrich says. “There is the objective reality that if ethnic minorities voted their economic interest, we would have a 65% Republican majority” nationally, he added.
Instead, Republicans continue to lag well behind Democrats in winning the votes of nonwhites, even as the white share of the population continues to decline.
For Democrats, of course, the reverse is true. They appear to be losing their grip on voting blocs that once were bedrock supporters: working-class whites, and especially working-class white men, whose union roots made their parents and grandparents loyal Democrats, as well as rural citizens and senior citizens, whose gratitude for New Deal economic and modernization programs pulled them to the Democrats.
But Tuesday’s results showed that the campaign played out against a backdrop of powerful demographic changes that the Democrats—led by the nation’s first black president, son of an African father and white mother from Kansas—have adjusted to more deftly.
Whites, who accounted for 87% of the vote in 1992, were 72% of it this year, exit polls indicated.
Hispanics, who were 2% then, were 10% this time. While 24 Latinos are in the House of Representatives now, that number is likely to be higher as a result of this year’s election, in which 49 Latinos were seeking House seats, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
Republicans have their own cast of Hispanic leaders with star quality—Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez among them—but they haven’t been sufficient to change the party’s image, or to move its position legislation to overhaul immigration laws in a way that might give some illegal immigrants or their children legal status.
Of course, the changes in American politics are hardly restricted to Democrats or to racial minorities. Republicans this year put a Mormon on a national ticket for the first time, and, when he was joined by the Catholic Paul Ryan, fielded the first presidential ticket not to include a Protestant. Obviously, the string of political firsts didn’t end with the election of Mr. Obama as the nation’s first African-American president in 2008.
And there were other reasons for the disappointing Republican finish. Among them was a slowly improving economy. Data suggest it is on a slow but steady climb out of the ditch of recession into which it fell from December 2007 to June 2009.
Americans’ confidence in their economy seems to be on a similarly slow but steady climb back up. At the beginning of the Obama term, 26% of Americans said the country was on the right track, according to The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. By the beginning of this election year, that number was up to 30%. By the weekend before Election Day, it had reached 42%.
Yet significant shares of Americans continue to think things won’t be better for their children than they are for today’s adults, an erosion in traditional American optimism.
Mr. Romney and his party never quite convinced Americans they had the answer, however.
Still, the broader problem for Republicans is that it now appears a party whose greatest appeal is with the part of the electorate that is in most rapid decline—older white voters—and with a solid hold on only one part of the country, the South.
Mr. Gingrich suggests that Republicans begin to address that problem by turning to Sen. Rubio and to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who nurtured strong ties to Hispanic voters in his state, to figure out how to improve the party’s message to minority voters. And Sen. Rubio undoubtedly will seek to revive his version of the so-called Dream Act that will give legal status to children of illegal immigrants who have studied in American schools or served in the military.
Democrats also face new problems as well. They will be compelled to solve difficult budget and economic problems in a Washington where they have no more power than they did over the last two years, when their solutions were caught in partisan gridlock.
Each party, Mr. Gingrich warns, has only a matter of months to show that it can break out of the old patterns. Otherwise, he warns, the old patterns of divisions will persist, and “we’ll just continue this bouncing back and forth like a ping-pong ball between two failed models.”
A version of this article appeared November 7, 2012, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Tough Loss Leaves GOP at a Crossroads.