Republican pessimism over 2012 is understandable. Not only did the GOP lose its bid for the White House, but — thanks to extreme candidates — also its shot at taking the Senate. What's more, as has been noted by many observers, the GOP holds the short end of the demographic stick: Its base (older white voters) is shrinking, while the Democratic base (nonwhites and young people) is growing at a brisk pace. A fair number of Republicans — and not just moderates — predict irrelevance for the party if it can’t make inroads into nonwhite communities, particularly Latinos and Asian Americans.
With all of that said, I'm not sure the GOP outlook is as dire as it looks. This was always a winnable race for Republicans, but pace their apparent belief, it was never a race that favored their victory. A growing economy and solid approval ratings meant that President Obama was always a small favorite for reelection, even if by objective standards, conditions were terrible. Indeed, of the six models crafted by political scientists months before the election, four forecast a close popular-vote win for Obama.
To put this another way, if you look at the states that determined the election — Virginia, Florida, Colorado and Ohio — the margins were fairly close. Obama won by 114,810 votes in Virginia, 73,858 votes in Florida, 113,099 votes in Colorado, and 103,481 votes in Ohio for a total of 405,248 votes, or 0.3 percent of all votes cast. If the economy were a little worse, or if Obama had run a less rigorous campaign, some or all of those states could have flipped in Romney's direction, giving him the presidency.
It's not hard to imagine an alternate reality where unemployment never dipped below 9 percent and Obama lost in a landslide defeat to Mitt Romney. It’s not even hard to imagine a world where Republicans nominated someone other than Romney, such as Jon Huntsman, and beat Obama under the current conditions.
Republicans should certainly do more to expand their appeal, which includes an effort towards solving the actual problems faced by middle- and working-class Americans. But I’m not sure that this requires them to retool their ideology. The simple fact is that there are pendulum swings in American politics, and Republicans will eventually win the White House — with or without a major change to their party's policies and infrastructure.
Of course, there is more to politics than winning, and it would be good for the sake of public policy if Republicans moved away from their near-theological devotion to tax cuts and fewer regulations. But, in the narrow realm of electoral politics, it's not clear to me that the GOP needs to make a substantive change.
Parties rarely control the White House for more than two terms; in a few years, the public will want to switch gears, and the Republican Party will almost certainly reap the benefits.