In a presidential race lost by a percentage point in several swing states it is hard to figure out precisely why a candidate lost. But there is a strong case to be made that Mitt Romney was better than his campaign. The irony is that the genius CEO did not effectively oversee his campaign.

Until October it was the Perils of Pauline campaign. It moved in fits and starts on foreign policy. The message was rarely consistent from day to day. Gobs of ads were aired to no apparent effect. The convention speech was a huge missed opportunity. Romney made a lunge now and then in the direction of immigration reform and an alternative health-care plan without giving those topics the attention they deserved. The communications team was the worst of any presidential campaign I have ever seen — slow and plodding, never able to capitalize on openings. It was hostile, indifferent and unhelpful to media, conservative and mainstream alike.

Matters did improve once Ed Gillespie moved forward to take charge of the message. A message at least became discernible. The ads certainly were simpler, more direct and more attuned to making a case for Romney’s agenda. But if not for a stunning series of performances in the debates and unexpected eloquence on the stump in the last month, Romney almost surely would have done worse than he did. A presidential race needs more than a good month to be successful.

Romney’s operation suffered from too many cooks in the kitchen, too much hesitation and too little creativity. For that the candidate ultimately bears responsibility. He did not direct a campaign with the single-minded focus needed to win, at least not until it was too late in the game.

But this was also a case in which the Democrats had a much better campaign than candidate. President Obama’s speeches were listless and content-less. His debate performances were atrocious. And yet the campaign did get its troops fired up. It delivered to the polls more Democrats than Republicans thought it could possibly do with a president whose record is as poor as this one’s is.

In the future, Republicans will have to find a way to appeal to the non-married, nonwhite, non-religious parts of the electorate. They must find a messenger or a message that is more than a standard conservative laundry list. They must figure out how conservatism can be presented as more than an abstract theory of the free market and as a compelling approach to addressing complicated problems. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s statement following the Obama victory was exactly on point: “In the next Congress, I am committed to working on upward mobility policies that will ensure people who work hard and play by the rules can rise above the circumstances of their birth and leave their children better off. The conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it, and Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them. I look forward to working on these goals with my new and returning colleagues in Congress and hope the President will get behind our efforts.”

Republicans in this election cycle had many good candidates who chose not to run. Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie and Rubio did not put themselves on the line, for a variety of reasons. No one can be forced to run for president, but they should be spared no criticism for preferring to sit out a winnable race. Of the candidates who did run in the primary, only Romney had any appeal to speak of beyond the Republican base. Really, does anyone imagine that Rick Santorum or Texas Gov. Rick Perry or, goodness gracious, Herman Cain, could have made it through the debates or presented an inclusive message? The Republican electorate selected the most plausible candidates from the available choices; the non-candidates bear some of the responsibility for an Obama second term.

The didn’t-ran’s of 2012 may be compelling choices in 2016. Other stars in the party (Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Gov. Scott Walker, etc.) will also have time to mature. They should spend the intervening time thinking about an agenda that is more nuanced and more inclusive than simply restating the arguments for free-market capitalism. They will need to navigate through the thicket of immigration reform and gay rights to devise an agenda that has appeal beyond the GOP core base. They must rethink and refashion a foreign policy agenda that preserves U.S. influence and defends our values but also takes into account our experiences in the Middle East, the real nature of the Arab Spring and the understandable fatigue felt by Americans when it comes to foreign intervention.

For now, however, Republicans must figure out how to get along with (or oppose) a president and a more Democratic Senate. They might be looking at the Simpson Bowles plan as the best they can do under current circumstances, for example. The country will survive four more years of Obama. The question remains whether Republicans will learn anything from it.

Read more opinions on Election 2012:

Greg Sargent: A big win for liberals

Eugene Robinson: The Republican’s 1950s campaign

E.J. Dionne: Obama victory should settle a bitter argument

The Post’s view: Obama’s second term