Paul Rahe ponders what went wrong in the election. Mostly, he concludes that Romney was insufficiently combative and ideological:
Instead of seeking a partisan victory by uniting the candidates of his party on a single, clearly spelled-out platform like Newt Gringrich’s Contract with America, Romney orphaned the Republican Senatorial candidates in such a manner as to localize the Senatorial campaigns.
The significance of the Contract with America on the 1994 election has been exaggerated so frequently that its role in securing large Republican gains in Congress that year has acquired an unjustified legendary status on the right. The Contract was mostly a collection of promises to bring various measures to the floor of the House. These were mostly procedural and Congressional reform measures that very few voters heard about before the election, and they were not a major factor in most voters’ decisions to support Republican candidates for Congress. Had Romney brought all Republican candidates together to endorse something like the Contract with America, he would have been indulging in nostalgia for an electoral gimmick that was almost two decades old.
The problem that all Republican Senate candidates faced in 2012 was not that their races had been too localized, but that they were all being tarred with the high unfavorability ratings of their party no matter who they were or what they said during their campaigns and the top of the Republican ticket happened to be one of the least-liked presidential nominees of all time. Considering Romney’s high unfavorability rating in some of these states (especially Ohio and Wisconsin), the Republican candidates likely would have preferred to be “orphans” rather than be closely linked to him.
Republican candidates lost in Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio, Virginia, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Montana in no small part because they belonged to a party that isn’t trusted or liked by a majority of the electorate. There is no simple ideological fix available that would have made most or all of them more competitive than they were. The GOP is still recovering in many parts of the country from the damage that the Bush administration inflicted on its reputation, and there was also strong support for the presidential party in most of these states. If anything, the Republican Senate candidates suffered so many defeats because they were unable to localize their races enough. There are other factors specific to each race that might account for Republican failures, but with a less toxic party label these might not have mattered as much.
Rahe is right that there was no “clash of visions” in the election, but that was just as true in the weeks after Ryan’s selection as it was on November 6. If there was no “clash of visions” in this election, the Ryanmaniacs pretended not to notice. They continued to believe that there were two very clearly opposed visions on display almost until the end of the campaign. The reason that I couldn’t fully understand the phenomenon of Ryanmania was that it didn’t make any sense to think that a “clash of visions” focused on entitlement reform would produce Republican victory at the polls. Romney and Ryan may have been somewhat cynical by pretending to be interested in entitlement reform and then falling back on the usual Medicare demagoguery, but their narrow political calculation was likely not wrong. Ryanmaniacs were the most susceptible to believing that the Ryan pick wasn’t just the electoral gimmick that it always seemed to be, and they were also among the most likely to overestimate the Republican ticket’s chances because they overestimated the appeal of Ryan and the ideas they identified with him.