BOSTON - President Barack Obama's thrashing of Mitt Romney exposed glaring structural weaknesses in the Republican Party that will shut the GOP out of the White House until they find a way to appeal to a rapidly changing America.
Battling a wheezing economy and a deeply motivated opposition, Obama still managed to retain much of his 2008 map because of the GOP's deficiencies with the voters who are changing the political face of once conservative-leaning Virginia, Florida, Colorado and Nevada.
Republicans face a crisis: the country is growing less white and their coalition has become more white in recent years.
In 2004, George W. Bush won 44 percent of Hispanics. Four years later, John McCain, the author of an immigration reform bill, took 31 percent of Hispanics. And this year, Romney captured only 27 percent of Hispanics.
"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," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who will immediately be looked to as a potential 2016 presidential candidate.
But the GOP's problem is more fundamental than one bloc of voters. For the second consecutive presidential election, the Republican got thumped among women and young voters in the states that decided the election.
"Our party needs to realize that it's too old and too white and too male and it needs to figure out how to catch up what the demographics of the country before it's too late," said Al Cardenas, the head of the American Conservative Union and a longtime GOP leader. "Our party needs a lot of work to do if we expect to be competitive in the near future."
Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), a prospective 2014 statewide candidate in a state moving sharply to the middle, was just as blunt: "After tonight, the GOP had better figure out that a big tent sounds good but if there aren't any seats in it, what good is it."
The desperate straits Republicans find themselves in are structural. But Romney should not completely absolved of responsibility for his party's ebb. He galloped to the right on immigration and reproductive-related issues in the GOP primary and only awkwardly attempted to move to the middle on those issues in the fall. And his awkward, 50s-era persona was almost comically far removed from Americans who are in their 20s and 30s. And he never attempted to distance himself or truly challenge a Republican Party that still bears bruises left from the Bush years.
But the rapidly growing population of minorities is something that looms larger than one flawed candidate.
Look no further than Florida, that reliable battleground that usually picks White House winners. Obama only won there by two-and-a-half points there in 2008, but somehow found a way to eke out a narrow victory again in the face of 8.7 percent unemployment there.
Why? Partly because there are 190,000 more Hispanics and 50,000 more African-Americans in the state than there were in 2008.
Florida Republicans were staggered: Obama managed to actually increase a 20-point margin from 2008 in suburban Orlando's Osceola County, home to thousands of Hispanics immigrants, to 25 points.
"Hispanics continue to grow in importance and we need to embrace these voters for two reasons: it is simply the right thing to do and its mandatory demographically if we are to avoid more presidential disappointments," said former George W. Bush political director Matt Schlapp. "It's about simple math and basic moral decency."
The seeming demographic anomaly, of course, is Ohio, a state full of the sort of white voters who now make up the GOP base. Such voters went for Romney nationally, but in must-have Ohio, Obama did a crucial three points better among whites.
Nowhere more than the Buckeye State was there a better example of both Romney's personal weaknesses and his campaigns missteps. Ohio can't be chalked up to demographics.
Republicans can point to the paucity of talent in their 2012 field, but in the first presidential election since the great recession, running a multimillionaire who got rich as a buyout artist seems wildly ill-advised.
Beyond the resume, there were the unforced errors that reinforced the caricature of Romney as out-of-touch plutocrat: Some of my best friends own NASCAR teams, corporations are people and $10,000 wagers.
But in terms of verbal miscues, nothing damaged Romney as badly as his caught-on-tape moment at a fundraiser full of wealthy donors riffing on the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay income taxes. And, making matters worse, Romney didn't fully express regret for his comment until weeks later.
In the hours after it happened, a former top George W. Bush adviser emailed with evident concern and diagnosed why the comment was so damaging: "The worst gaffes reveal what people already presumed bad about someone."
Indeed, long before Romney came up two points short in Ohio, many veteran Republicans were convinced that class issues would spell his demise.
"A Romney loss would be solely based on class and personality: middle class, affable and emotional former governor would be up by 5," said one GOP operative in the days before Romney's defeat.
That's probably a bit rose-tinted, but there's little question that Romney's business background and persona made him uniquely vulnerable in Ohio.
A son of privilege who got rich in a way that was a gift to Democratic ad-makers was a tough enough sell. But a socially awkward guy who couldn't relate and served up a steady diet of comments that screamed "not from these parts" made him close to untenable. And most puzzling, even to Romney's own family members, was that he didn't make any real effort at showing his human side until after the first debate in October, at which point a caricature of him had been etched.
His inherent challenge in the state was compounded by his campaign's mistakes in the state. They never had a big-picture strategy on how to explain Romney's work at Bain Capital or his opposition to Obama's auto bailout. And it wasn't for a lack of lead time: Romney got hammered for his business work in his 1994 Senate campaign and he came out against the auto rescue in 2009. He knew it was coming, but had no apparent plan when the ads from Obama's campaign and Super PAC rained down on him all summer.
It wasn't until the final week of the campaign, trailing persistently in every Ohio poll, that Romney, nudged by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio.), made a desperate play to address the auto issue. The ad, which suggested that Jeep had moved jobs overseas, drew scathing condemnation from the auto-makers. Even before polls closed on Tuesday, a senior Romney official pointed to the ad as one of the biggest mistakes of the campaign.
Asked to explain Romney's loss in Ohio, two longtime Republican insiders in the state pointed in the same direction: Northwest Ohio, auto country.
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