TAMPA — The final tally had yet to emerge from the presidential election in Florida on Wednesday, but Republicans throughout the state were already asking an unsettling question: What happened?
Conservative groups poured tens of millions of dollars and countless hours into the Sunshine State. Mitt Romney visited nearly 40 times, far more than President Obama. The Republican Party ramped up voter turnout efforts, undertook a relentless advertising campaign statewide and even held its national convention in this key city on Florida’s west coast — all in an effort to improve on Sen. John McCain’s performance in 2008 and win the state’s 29 electoral votes.
Exactly why those efforts fell short and what it means for Florida’s Republicans in the future is the source of an ongoing debate and plenty of soul-searching.
“Last night was an especially tough one for all of us,” Lenny Curry, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, wrote in a letter to party members, adding, “We didn’t win the White House, and we lost some races we thought we could win. Many people, including me, will study this race over the coming days to determine where we can improve our operations and how we can execute better.”
For some, the biggest problem was a straightforward one: GOP efforts on the ground were no match for the Obama campaign’s superior organization, discipline and data.
“They built a very effective, powerful turnout machine,” said Rick Wilson, a longtime Florida GOP strategist. “It was brilliantly executed, and it was driven by data and analytics that we have never seen before.”
Wilson said the Romney campaign and the Republican Party worked relentlessly to expand on 2008 totals — at last count, Romney had won about 53,000 more votes than McCain did. But the strategist said they also failed to recognize the Obama campaign’s ability to single out and motivate “low-frequency” voters, particularly Hispanics, African Americans and young people who had not voted four years ago.
“We underestimated their ability to push the numbers they got in 2008 any higher. Obviously, they could,” Wilson said. “It wasn’t the message. It wasn’t the strategy. . . . They built a machine that defeated us.”
The reality isn’t quite that simple, said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.
“I don’t buy that, not in Florida,” she said of the notion that organization alone put Obama on pace to win the state for the second time. She noted that the state has half a million more registered Democrats than Republicans, and yet Obama held only a 50,000-vote margin Wednesday, with some counties still tallying absentee ballots.
“You don’t get a nail-biter, photo-finish race unless you have a pretty strong get-out-the-vote effort by the Republicans,” MacManus said.
Rather, she said, part of the answer lies in Florida’s changing demographics. There are more Hispanics than ever in the state now, and they turned out more strongly for Obama than in 2008. Higher percentages of women and young people also sided with the president this time, helping him cling to a narrow lead in the state.
“In Florida, and really nationally,” MacManus said, Republicans “just never put any emphasis on promoting the diversity within their party.”
Dan Smith, a University of Florida political science professor, said a confluence of factors kept Romney from the decisive victory he needed in the state. For starters, Smith said, the Obama campaign had been building an extensive organization in the state since 2008. Romney was really able to focus on Florida only after surviving a bruising Republican primary. But Obama’s “organizational genius” alone could not have won the state, Smith said. The campaign’s message resonated more with key voters.
“The superior organization mattered quite a bit in Florida, but part of that has to do with people’s interest in going to the polls,” Smith said.
Whatever the case, Florida Republicans were left to ponder the future Wednesday. They had retained sizable majorities in the state legislature and helped maintain the GOP majority in the U.S. House. But the loss at the top of the ticket stung.
Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), a son of Cuban immigrants who campaigned hard for Romney, suggested after the race that the party must find a way to appeal to a more diverse electorate.
“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,” Rubio said in a statement.
That sounds like a good start to Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Republican lobbyist and Florida campaign veteran.
“There are things we need to think about, things we need to talk about, and probably some things we need to change,” Stipanovich said. “We probably need to be less reflexively and dogmatically conservative and need to take a new look at the people we’d like to represent — what their needs are, what their aspirations are.”
He doesn’t believe Obama’s strong performance in Florida on Tuesday signals the demise of Republican competitiveness in the state. But he does believe it provides a valuable opportunity for the party to step back and choose the wiser path forward.
“When you lose a major election like this, you should take stock,” Stipanovich said. “I don’t know if it’s a wake-up call. But it’s a tap on the shoulder, and we’ve had a couple of them now. We continue to ignore them at our peril.”