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Barely eight years ago, Republicans recovered from a heavy presidential loss, after Mitt Romney lost to President Obama by 126 votes.
And then the GOP produced a report from 2013 which became known as the “autopsy”, where they showed how the party should move forward – above all that it should extend its outreach to communities of color, women and young voters.
Flashing until spring, when Romney marched in opposition to police brutality, declaring that “black lives matter.”
A voter who somehow missed all the political news from the past seven years can look at Mitt Romney who marched with Black Lives Matter supporters and believes the party followed close to the autopsy.
But then it’s not where the rest of the party is – and it’s emphatically not where the president is. In fact, President Trump mocked Romney for marching with these protesters – and Romney himself is one of the president’s most elected Republican critics.
At the same time, Trump is currently far behind Joe Biden with non-white, female and young voters. And he won in 2016 even though he lost these groups by significant margins.
This is not the only way he defied the autopsy, which also particularly recommended a comprehensive immigration review. Trump, in his 2016 campaign, viewed infamous immigrants crossing the border from Mexico as dangerous.
“They bring drugs, they bring crime, they are rapists,” he said in his campaign announcement, “and I guess they’s good people.”
Today, the autopsy is a window into the GOP’s internal divisions – as well as pressure that some fear will harm the party for generations to come.
“Obviously a failure”
When then-RNC chairman Reince Priebus unveiled the report in 2013, he was sincere: things need to change.
“If there is one message I want everyone to remove from here, it is this: we know we have problems, we have identified them and we are implementing solutions to fix them,” he said.
Today, one of the authors of the autopsy’s authors believes that the corrections did not work. Former Republican strategist Sally Bradshaw, who has since left politics and the party, calls the report “obviously a failure.”
She declined to speak to the NPR but in an email added: “My hope is that Trump will lose in November, Republicans will lose the Senate and the GOP will be forced to rebuild with conservatives focused on the power of ideas.”
The party is indeed at risk of losing power as a result of not following the autopsy’s recommendations, according to Republican pollster Whit Ayres.
“For the most part, the Republican Party has done the opposite of what was recommended at the 2013 autopsy,” he said. “That’s part of the reason why so many rapidly changing demographic states are now playing for the Democrats who used to be solid Republicans – states like Arizona and Texas and Georgia and North Carolina.”
Trump found success in the short term, he says, but at a cost, as U.S. voters grow more diverse with each passing year.
“For the Republican Party to be successful in the long run. It will have to adapt to a changing America, not react to it,” he added.
Can Trump’s outreach work?
In early 2016, Ari Fleischer, former secretary of state for President George W. Bush, told Politico that if Trump lost the election, “you will actually have a story that says we were right” at the autopsy. Today, he believes that Trump in 2016 did what the report requested – if only sideways.
“I think it’s fair to say that the Trump campaign did what we recommended. But did it in a way that we did not recommend,” he said. “Trump’s outreach was to expand and grow the party in the direction of blue-collar, non-college-educated voters.
He is optimistic that Trump can expand further among non-white voters. Hearing polls suggest that in 2016, Trump did better than other recent nominees among black, Latino and Asian voters, but barely.
“When you talk about what Trump said about Mexicans coming here and the wall – even having said these things, he did better than Romney and McCain,” Fleischer said.
(It is important that some experts have since questioned the reliability of the baseline surveys in 2016.)
However, Trump has continued to say racist things, and many colors feel targeted by his policies. Since he has dug in after appealing to his base via subjects of race and culture, it is not clear that he was able to hold on to them and expand his reach at the same time.
Fleischer also acknowledged that the party has “a striking problem with suburban-educated women.”
Another autopsy co-author, South Carolina Republican Commissioner Glenn McCall, sees at least one step in getting more female voters.
“We have had our best election cycle this year in recruiting more women to work for access at the national and state levels,” he said. “We need to market them and we need to talk about the issues that are important for talking to women and especially single mothers and suburban women.”
It is also true that the report had recommendations far beyond demographic change and immigration reform. Fleischer and McCall both pointed out that the GOP data operation is much stronger than it was in 2012.
In addition, the report called for improvements to the party’s fundraising infrastructure. Today, Republicans have a digital fundraising platform from WinRed to compete with Democrats ActBlue.
Winning young, different voters
All in all, however, it means securing the party’s future at some point to win more of today’s young voters.
“Trump has never done well with young voters,” said Charlotte Alter, a correspondent at Time and author of The ones we’ve been waiting for, a book on millennials and politics. “But the Republican Party lost young people even before Trump. Trump only made it much harder to get those young people back.”
It is true that exit polls do not suggest that Trump voted more with young voters than Romney and McCain did.
However, Alter believes that he is creating the party for future failures by not wading into policies that some young conservatives support, such as combating climate change. And there are some warning signs for the GOP: election issues have shown millennials, and especially millennial women, losing out on the party.
Winning young voters necessarily means winning over non-white voters. Younger voters are much more diverse than older voters.
It may mean that judging the wisdom of the report – and how important it was if Trump followed it closely – is a question that may not be answered in November, but instead decades.