“Consider two companies that are each given a billion dollars and ten months to close a sale,” Mohan Kompella says. “One does, the other doesn’t. What should the losing side do? Re-think its products, its strategy, and its marketing campaign? Or blame dumb, incompetent, and worthless consumers for buying the other company’s product?”
Kompella is suggesting that the Republican Party is like a company that has failed to make a major sale. Like any company, the Republican Party needs to rethink its business model, if it's going to improve its results in the future. But, instead of asking what they could have done differently, some Republicans are blaming voters for being too stupid or selfish to make the right choice. Mitt Romney explained his loss by saying that President Obama had bought off voters with “gifts” like health care coverage and amnesty for the children of illegal immigrants. Those comments echoed Romney’s claim in May—which of course he later took back—that 47 percent of Americans would vote for Obama no matter what because they believe “the government has a responsibility to care for them... that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”
Other Republicans have suggested that their problem was the way their product was marketed. If Romney had sold himself better or if he had been able to match the Democrats’ turnout operation, maybe they would have won the election. Romney did make some avoidable mistakes and seemed to have been unable to compete with Obama’s sophisticated “ground game.” But the Republican Party’s insistence that Romney satisfy its conservative base made it extremely difficult for him to win over the moderate voters he needed to win a national election. In the end, the election wasn’t that close, and there is only so much marketing can do. As Kompella says, “how many great companies do you know that make outdated products that appeal to a small and shrinking consumer base and yet succeed and flourish because of great commercials on TV?”
The truth is that the customer is always right in one sense: if customers aren’t interested in your product, that’s your problem. In 1936, Henry P. Fletcher, Chairman of the Republican Party at the time, accused FDR of buying votes by providing economic relief in much the same way as Romney has done with Obama. FDR responded that Fletcher had accused him of “playing politics” for “feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and sheltering the destitute, regardless of their sex, age, creed, color, race or place of residence.” FDR was right to suggest that it made little sense for Republicans to criticize Americans for voting for the candidate whose policies they prefer. Addressing people's needs is ultimately what governing is. If Americans aren’t buying what Republicans are selling, Republicans are going to have to rethink the product they're offering.
Kompella's analogy is too simple in one way. Politics is not exactly like business. Companies are generally just interested in the bottom line. They don’t care what they’re selling, so long as it sells. As cynical as politicians might be—and at times Romney certainly seemed like he was just telling everyone what he thought they wanted to hear—they actually believe in what they’re selling. They’re not simply trying to craft the platform that will attract the most votes, the way a soda company might try to formulate a soda that appealed to the most people. Political parties want voters to buy the product that the party believes in. The formula can be tweaked, but it isn't completely negotiable.
The problem for Republicans is that Americans aren't interested right now in buying the package of policies the party wants to sell. The gap between the two parties is still small, and Republicans will probably make some gains in the midterm elections when turnout is lower among Democratic-leaning groups. But as the electorate becomes less white, less rural, and less evangelical, the Republican coalition is shrinking. If Republicans want to win elections and get any part of their platform passed, they're going to have to build a new coalition. It may be a bitter pill for conservative voters to swallow, but they’re going to have to make common cause with people who have different ideas than they do on climate change, immigration, same-sex marriage, and marijuana use. Because if they don’t rethink their product, they’re just going to keep losing.
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Mitt Romney image by Gage Skidmore