It’s not a good time to be a Republican. The circular firing squad — it was Mitt Romney’s fault! Demographics did it! Conservatives messed everything up! — has begun in earnest even though the 2012 election is less than two weeks gone.
Regardless of whom you choose to blame — we lean toward demographics and a GOP turnout operation that is a pale imitation of what Democrats have put in place — it’s clear that the Republican Party needs an overhaul. And the sooner everyone in the party recognizes that, the better.
That said, things aren’t that bad for Republicans. Here are four reasons for optimism.
1. The party’s superstars are coming of age. The 2012 election for Republicans was sort of like the 2004 election for Democrats in terms of candidate quality. The candidates who ran in 2004/2012 were a mix of people who had to run this time around (Romney, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty) or who figured the weakness of the field gave them a chance to score an upset (former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania). In each case, the superstars-in-waiting for the party were one election away from making runs in their own right. So, in 2008, we saw Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton run. And in 2016, we are likely to see Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) — all of whom have significantly more star power than Romney — make the race.
2. There are a historic number of GOP governors. Next year, 30 states will be run by Republicans — the highest number for either party in more than a decade. Those 30 chief executives include Jindal and Christie, who are already getting major 2016 buzz, and also New Mexico’s Susana Martinez, the first Hispanic woman elected governor from either party, and Nevada’s Brian Sandoval, a Hispanic former federal judge. Both are likely to play leading roles in the party’s attempts to court Latino voters. And then there are the other 26 governors who all will have real opportunities to rebrand the Republican Party based on how they choose to govern between now and 2016. (Keep an eye on Indiana’s Mike Pence, who has designs on a national candidacy down the line.) Remember that when the Democratic Party found itself in the political wilderness after the 1988 election, it turned to its governors — including the boy wonder from Arkansas — for ideas on how to remake itself. And we know how that turned out.
3. The electoral map is bad, but not that bad. We’ve written extensively on how where Republicans currently find themselves in terms of the electoral map is similar to where Democrats found themselves in the 1980s. That’s broadly true, but things for Republicans today aren’t nearly as dire as they looked for Democrats three decades ago. From 1968 to 1988, Democratic presidential nominees averaged a paltry 113 electoral votes. From 1992 to 2012, Republicans have averaged a much more robust 210. While demographic and population trends are clearly working against Republicans — Texas as a swing state in 2020, anyone? — the party is not that far, electorally speaking, from creating a credible path back to 270 electoral votes. Find a way to make the industrial Midwest — Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin and even Pennsylvania — competitive again and the map suddenly doesn’t look so bad for the GOP.
4. History is on their side. Presidential politics in the post-World War II era tend to be defined by the pendulum effect. The pendulum swings one way for eight (or so) years and then has a tendency to swing back the other way — almost no matter what. Al Gore lost his bid for 12 straight years of Democratic control of the White House even though the economy was humming along and public opinion on President Bill Clinton remained positive. The exception to that rule was the 12 years that Republicans controlled the White House from 1980 to 1992, but George H.W. Bush was unable to win a second term thanks to Bill Clinton. Of course, historical trends are true until they aren’t anymore (No president can be reelected with unemployment above 7.4 percent!), but the tendency of the American public to bounce between the two parties — at least at the presidential level— every eight years is pretty consistent.