Back in 2012, the Republican Party, feeling stung by its electoral losses, decided to do a serious postmortem to discover why it was having such a hard time in national elections. GOP leaders had convinced themselves that they had an excellent chance to beat Barack Obama and take control of the Senate, and from their point of view the stars seemed to be aligned.
Their presidential nominee that year, Mitt Romney, had been a popular and reasonably successful governor of a blue state (Massachusetts) and Democrats were defending 23 Senate seats in that cycle (including two independents) while Republicans only had to defend 10. It was the first congressional election after the 2010 redistricting, and looked to be brutal for Democrats in the House. But Obama won re-election handily, while Democrats also gained two seats in the Senate and eight in the House. At that point Republicans had only won the popular vote for president once in 24 years, and they understood that something was wrong.
So the Republican National Committee decided to convene a panel to take a look at why their party had gone off the rails and offer advice on how to change course. This was officially called the Growth and Opportunity Project, but became almost universally known as "the autopsy." The group conducted more than 36,000 online surveys, 3,000 group listening sessions, 800 conference calls and 50 focus groups and produced a 100-page report it described as the "most comprehensive post-election review" ever done. The upshot was pretty simple: By and large, the American people simply did not like what the Republican Party was selling.
At a rollout of the plan at the National Press Club, one of the participants, Sally Bradshaw, put the conclusion starkly:
The party has been continually marginalizing itself and unless changes are made it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future. Public perception of our party is at record lows. Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the party represents and many minorities think Republicans don't like them or don't want them in our country. When someone rolls their eyes at us they aren't likely to open their ears to us.
Bradshaw also mentioned that the party needed to do better with women and address their "unique concerns." Another participant, Glenn McCall of South Carolina, said that the party seemed "intolerant and unaccepting of differing points of view" pointing out that "if our party isn't welcoming and inclusive, young people and increasingly other voters will continue to tune us out."
This was widely perceived as a badly needed wakeup call. The assumption across the political world was that the Republicans were serious about retooling both their policies and their messaging, and would avoid nominating candidates like Todd Akin of Missouri, who famously declared that a woman couldn't become pregnant from a "legitimate rape" and lost a highly winnable Senate seat. The GOP was also expected to tone down its anti-immigrant rhetoric and move toward "the middle," where it could appeal to more women and people of color in hopes of once again building a majority coalition.
Things did not go as planned. On the day of the report's release, a gadfly by the name of Donald Trump tweeted: "New @RNC report calls for embracing 'comprehensive immigration reform. Does the @RNC have a death wish?" He added:
No one paid any attention to his political ravings back then. But fast forward three years, and guess what? Trump was winning the Republican presidential nomination, and torching all his GOP rivals, by doing exactly the opposite of everything the autopsy recommended. Politico reported at the time on the hysteria building among the autopsy's authors — and the growing excitement among many Republicans over this new "movement" that promised to deliver a glorious election victory without having to cater to all those undesirables. That story featured an interview with one GOP operative from North Carolina:
"I spend a lot of time in beauty/barbershops, on the block and where ordinary people are," she said. "They like Trump and his in-your-face style. He is viewed as sticking it to 'em. If Trump becomes the nominee then we should accept it and help him win and become a great president."
Six years on, we all know what happened. Trump has announced his Vengeance 2024 tour and is hoping to once again haul his people out to watch him "stick it to 'em" and vote him back into office. But the climate has shifted as the losses keep piling up. The only election the Republicans have really won since Trump came on the scene was that flukey victory in 2016, and this week RNC chair Ronna McDaniel, announced a plan for yet another autopsy in the wake of the party's unexpectedly bad performance in this month's midterm elections.
One might think that it would be wise for Republican leaders at least to dust off that report from 2013 and take a look, just in case those ideas about growing the party instead of shrinking it might have some merit after all. If anything, the conditions they cited nearly 10 years ago are even more relevant now. Consider what Ari Fleischer, former George W. Bush press secretary and devoted Trump acolyte, told Politico in 2016:
The fact remains, America's demography is changing and that won't stop. … So let's just say Donald Trump wins the election because of his unique appeal to blue-collar Democrats. The report will be valid for his successor most likely. Demographics is demographics, and what we said remains important.
But that's doesn't seem to be where they're going at all. McDaniel announced that the panel will be packed with Trump-friendly right-wingers, including longtime Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, Trump-endorsed tech-bro Blake Masters — who just lost his Arizona Senate race — and Christian-right lobbyist and anti-abortion zealot Tony Perkins, along with newly-elected Trump endorsees like Sen.-elect Katie Britt of Alabama, Rep.-elect Monica De La Cruz of Texas and Rep.-elect John James of Michigan.
Anyone who thinks that particular group will be "charting a new path" needs to have another think again. This autopsy will almost certainly find a way to affirm that Republicans lost because they weren't Trumpy enough. To reach any other conclusion would amount to repudiating the party's base voters and the slightly tarnished Dear Leader they still worship.