It was not long after the election that elder statesmen of the G.O.P. began offering assurances that all would soon be right. But younger Republicans were not buying it. On Dec. 6, [Zac] Moffatt [whose firm, Targeted Victory, commandeered the 2012 digital operations of the Romney campaign] addressed an audience of party digital specialists at the R.N.C.’s Capitol Hill Club. Moffatt spoke confidently about how, among other things, the Romney digital team had pretty much all the same tools the Obama campaign possessed. Bret Jacobson was shocked when he read about Moffatt’s claim the next day. “That’s like saying, ‘This Potemkin village will bring us all prosperity!’ ” Jacobson told me. “There’s something to be said for putting on a happy face — except when it makes you sound like Baghdad Bob.”
A few days after the Moffatt gathering, the R.N.C.’s chairman, Reince Priebus, announced that the committee would conduct a wide-ranging investigation — called the Growth and Opportunity Project — into the ways the party was going astray. To guide the investigation were familiar names, like the former Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, the longtime Florida operative Sally Bradshaw and the R.N.C. veteran Henry Barbour. Erik Telford, the 28-year-old founder of the RightOnline bloggers’ convention, told me that he found himself wondering aloud: “Do you want an aggressive investigation from people who’ve built their careers on asking skeptical questions? Or do you want a report from people who are symptomatic of what’s gone wrong?”
Equally galling to younger Republicans was the op-ed Stuart Stevens wrote in The Washington Post on Nov. 28. In it, Romney’s top strategist struck an unrepentant tone, proudly noting that the candidate “carried the majority of middle-class voters” and that the party therefore “must be doing something right.” From her office near the Capitol, Kristen Soltis Anderson, a 28-year-old G.O.P. pollster, tried not to come unglued. “But you didn’t win the election,” she told me she thought at the time. “I’m really glad you scored that touchdown in the third quarter, I am — but you lost the game!”
Anderson is a fantasy-football fanatic, with the rat-a-tat argumentative cadence that gives her away as a former high-school debater. Upon graduating from college, she became the lead singer of the Frustrations, a rock-ska group that folded, as only a D.C.-based band could, when one member decided to attend law school and another needed more time to study for the bar exam. Anderson, for her part, is now a pollster and vice president of the Winston Group. Like the Red Edge partners and virtually every other young Republican with whom I spoke, she regards herself as a socially tolerant, limited-government fiscal conservative. (Today Republicans of all age groups strenuously avoid describing themselves as “moderate,” a term that the far right has made radioactive.) Camera-ready and compulsively perky — she has twice appeared on Bill Maher’s ”Real Time” panel as a token conservative — she nonetheless lapses into despondency when talking about her party’s current state of denial. During one of the postelection panels, Anderson heard a journalist talk about his interviews with Romney staff members who had hoped to build a winning coalition of white voters. “That just stunned me,” she told me one afternoon over coffee. “I thought: Did you not see the census? Because there was one! And it had some pretty big news — like that America’s biggest growing population is the Latino community! Surprise, surprise! How have we not grasped that this is going to be really important?”
One afternoon last month, I flew with Anderson to Columbus, Ohio, to watch her conduct two focus groups. The first consisted of 10 single, middle-class women in their 20s; the second, of 10 20-something men who were either jobless or employed but seeking better work. All of them voted for Obama but did not identify themselves as committed Democrats and were sufficiently ambivalent about the president’s performance that Anderson deemed them within reach of the Republicans. Each group sat around a large conference table with the pollster, while I viewed the proceedings from behind a panel of one-way glass.
The all-female focus group began with a sobering assessment of the Obama economy. All of the women spoke gloomily about the prospect of paying off student loans, about what they believed to be Social Security’s likely insolvency and about their children’s schooling. A few of them bitterly opined that the Democrats care little about the working class but lavish the poor with federal aid. “You get more off welfare than you would at a minimum-wage job,” observed one of them. Another added, “And if you have a kid, you’re set up for life!”
About an hour into the session, Anderson walked up to a whiteboard and took out a magic marker. “I’m going to write down a word, and you guys free-associate with whatever comes to mind,” she said. The first word she wrote was “Democrat.”
“Young people,” one woman called out.
“Liberal,” another said. Followed by: “Diverse.” “Bill Clinton.”“Change.”“Open-minded.”“Spending.”“Handouts.”“Green.”“More science-based.”
When Anderson then wrote “Republican,” the outburst was immediate and vehement: “Corporate greed.”“Old.”“Middle-aged white men.” “Rich.” “Religious.” “Conservative.” “Hypocritical.” “Military retirees.” “Narrow-minded.” “Rigid.” “Not progressive.” “Polarizing.” “Stuck in their ways.” “Farmers.”
Anderson concluded the group on a somewhat beseeching note. “Let’s talk about Republicans,” she said. “What if anything could they do to earn your vote?”
A self-identified anti-abortion, “very conservative” 27-year-old Obama voter named Gretchen replied: “Don’t be so right wing! You know, on abortion, they’re so out there. That all-or-nothing type of thing, that’s the way Romney came across. And you know, come up with ways to compromise.”
“What would be the sign to you that the Republican Party is moving in the right direction?” Anderson asked them.
“Maybe actually pass something?” suggested a 28-year-old schoolteacher named Courtney, who also identified herself as conservative.
The session with the young men was equally jarring. None of them expressed great enthusiasm for Obama. But their depiction of Republicans was even more lacerating than the women’s had been. “Racist,” “out of touch” and “hateful” made the list — “and put ‘1950s’ on there too!” one called out.
Showing a reverence for understatement, Anderson said: “A lot of those words you used to describe Republicans are negative. What could they say or do to make you feel more positive about the Republican Party?”
“Be more pro-science,” said a 22-year-old moderate named Jack. “Embrace technology and change.”
“Stick to your strong suit,” advised Nick, a 23-year-old African-American. “Clearly social issues aren’t your strong suit. Stop trying to fight the battle that’s already been fought and trying to bring back a movement. Get over it — you lost.”
Later that evening at a hotel bar, Anderson pored over her notes. She seemed morbidly entranced, like a homicide detective gazing into a pool of freshly spilled blood. In the previous few days, the pollster interviewed Latino voters in San Diego and young entrepreneurs in Orlando. The findings were virtually unanimous. No one could understand the G.O.P.’s hot-blooded opposition to gay marriage or its perceived affinity for invading foreign countries. Every group believed that the first place to cut spending was the defense budget. During the whiteboard drill, every focus group described Democrats as “open-minded” and Republicans as “rigid.”
“There is a brand,” the 28-year-old pollster concluded of her party with clinical finality. “And it’s that we’re not in the 21st century.”
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