GOP Can't Win Without Facing Reality | Opinion

Despite all the hype and hoopla of the recently concluded "Trump Fest" at CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference), Republicans face a crushing collection of intractable problems and dire prospects for the immediate future. The worst part of the GOP's current dilemma: the loudest voices in the party stubbornly refuse to acknowledge its alarming situation.

"We went through a journey like nobody else, there's never been a journey like it, there's never been a journey so successful," Donald Trump assured the CPAC faithful gathered in Orlando, home to the aptly named Magic Kingdom. "That's why the party is growing so rapidly," he added later in his 90-minute address.

Where, exactly, is the evidence of this unrivaled journey of unprecedented triumph and growth?

Republicans managed to lose control of the House, the Senate and the White House within a single term. As Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana (a conservative Republican and one of the "magnificent seven" who voted to convict Trump in this year's impeachment trial) pointed out, the last president to preside over such a trifecta of defeat was Herbert Hoover, 88 years ago.

Moreover, in the eight presidential elections since Bill Clinton's first victory in 1992, the GOP has lost the popular vote seven times, winning shaky Electoral College majorities in 2000 and 2016 largely through the spoiler role of vigorous third parties.

In the House of Representatives, Republicans went from 247 seats and 51.2 percent of the national congressional vote in 2014 (the last midterm election before Trump captured the party), to 213 and 47.7 percent—slightly higher than Trump's share of the national vote, enabling the party's modest House gains after the "blue wave" wipeout of 2018.

On the state level, Republicans have even more cause for concern—despite the fact that enduring strength in smaller, rural states means they still control a majority of legislative bodies. More striking (and seldom discussed) has been the rapid disappearance of strong, popular Republican governors in crucial swing states, like Scott Walker and Chris Christie. As recently as 2016, the GOP occupied executive mansions in Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Maine, Louisiana, Kentucky and Kansas, all with capitals where Democrats hold sway today. Back in 2014, a Republican governor still held Pennsylvania as well. Republican losses don't look so disastrous on national gubernatorial maps because of the unlikely success of a clutch of East Coast moderates in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maryland. These governors have distanced themselves from Trumpism and managed to work effectively with Democratic legislatures.

Though many conservative strategists anticipate making gains at every level in the elections of 2022 (new presidents almost always lose congressional seats in the first midterms after their election), Republicans must first get through significant bell-weather contests in November 2021. Virginia, New Jersey and New York City provide the most significant races, and in all of them the GOP's prospects range from bleak to nonexistent. In that context, it's worth remembering that Republicans reigned as reformist mayors of New York (remember Rudy before Borat?) for 12 years from 1994 to 2006, with Michael Bloomberg taking an additional 8 years, first as a Republican and later as an independent. With nearly half the city already campaigning to replace the indescribably hapless Bill de Blasio this November, nearly anything could happen—except, according to all prognostications, the emergence of a viable Republican.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the
Former U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held in the Hyatt Regency on February 28, 2021 in Orlando, Florida. The Wall Street Journal editorial board has since questioned the former president's usefulness to the Republican party. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images/Getty

The decisive 2020 states of Arizona and Georgia may similarly be moving away from competitive two-party battlegrounds where either side could prevail, and toward an unmistakable Democratic lean. After all, those rapidly growing sun-belt former Republican strongholds recently elected two Democratic senators each. Both states also maintain pragmatically inclined Republican governors who have been condemned for disloyalty (and even formally censured) by Trumpian true believers and may face primary challengers in 2022.

Part of the reason for these perilous prospects is demographics—the sharp increase of non-white voters and college graduates in the electoral mix. Yes, Donald Trump in 2020 made modest but welcome gains among blacks and Hispanics compared to his dismal showing four years earlier. But Biden still drew more than 70 percent of non-white voters, just as Barack Obama did against Mitt Romney, the last so-called establishment candidate of the GOP. More significantly, Romney won college graduates narrowly (51 percent to 47 percent) according to exit polls in 2012, but Trump plunged to a landslide loss (55-33 percent) in a segment of the electorate that soared in the last eight years from 29 percent to 41 percent of all voters. Every indication is that the key component of Trump's base—white males without university educations—will continue to decline in relative voting strength.

The celebrants at CPAC and any planners for Republican rejuvenation must devote more energy to addressing these obvious challenges. The most important step for Republicans who want to understand why they lost and what they can do about it is to acknowledge, finally and unequivocally, that they did indeed lose.

As long as Trump himself continues to insist that "I won—by a lot!" the party's biggest concern will remain how to count votes to its advantage, rather than how to do a better job of earning voters' support.

Earning more votes, even in states that Biden carried comfortably, remains tantalizingly possible. History shows that party balance can shift suddenly and unexpectedly. Democratic sweeps in 1974 and Jimmy Carter's '76 defeat of Gerald Ford gave way to the Reagan-Bush landslides of 1980-88.

Before that, 12 years of lopsided Republican dominance under Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover (1920-32) collapsed into five terms of one-party Democratic rule under FDR and Truman.

Much depends on success or stagnation from the Biden administration, and a Republican determination to avoid punishing, pointless internecine warfare. But regardless of the surprises that lie ahead, conservatives can't begin to bend reality toward a more hopeful future until they accept the realities of this challenging present.

Michael Medved hosts a daily radio talk show and is author, most recently, of God's Hand On America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era. Follow him on Twitter: @MedvedSHOW.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own