The calling of presidential election results marks an important transition between campaigns; it’s the end of the contest between the candidates, and the beginning of the contest within the losing party to define why it lost.
We saw a great deal of this in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, as I describe in my book Learning from Loss: The Democrats 2016-2020. Democrats argued among themselves for years about just why Hillary Clinton lost that contest to Donald Trump. (Arguably, they still haven’t settled on an answer.) Party insiders and pundits embraced various narratives about poor campaign decisions, bad allocation of resources, weak messaging, candidate personality issues, identity politics, and more to explain just why that contest came out as it did.
These narratives aren’t necessarily accurate, and many of them are honestly hard to test. But the process of developing these interpretations of an election loss is vital for the losing party. It gives them an idea about what to do next, whether that involves changing their internal rules about debates or primaries, reaching out to different sets of voters, picking a different kind of presidential nominee for the next election, or something else.
This process is just getting started in the wake of the 2020 election. Interestingly enough, it seemed to start on the Democratic side. Democrats, having expected to do better in the election, have been fighting with each other about why they lost various congressional races, with the issue of race playing a central role.
Republicans so far have postponed this internal party debate due to Trump’s ongoing contestation of the election. The bulk of party leaders and congressional Republicans are standing with Trump in his baseless allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities, and as long as they’re still in campaign mode, they don’t have to argue about what path a post-Trump party should take.
But in a bit more than a month, Trump will no longer be President, and the GOP will need to have some sort of a reckoning with what happened in 2020. This will be a painful conversation for them to have. Remember that, in a highly symbolic gesture, the party declined to write a platform for 2020, and simply stated that its sole objective was to return Donald Trump to the White House. What is the party’s core mission now?
One likely narrative that will emerge among President Trump and his supporters is that he is largely innocent of wrongdoing and that the Covid-19 pandemic, and to some extent Democratic malfeasance, are responsible for his loss. Had there been no pandemic, the economy would likely still be in good shape, and Trump would have sailed to a second term as most incumbents do.
(This isn’t the case, of course -- Trump was trailing Biden in matchup polls before the virus hit. But again, these narratives don’t have to be literally true.)
This narrative would conveniently align with President Trump’s claims that he was unjustly deprived of reelection and that he is owed another term in office. Indeed, this is what some Republican leaders, including Senators Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell, have already suggested, and Trump himself has strongly hinted at running for the party’s 2024 presidential nominee. At least at this point, it’s not clear who would stand up to him in the primaries.
Republicans declined to write a platform for 2020, and simply stated that their sole objective was to return Donald Trump to the White House. What is the party’s core mission now?
Another possible narrative would likely come from the “Never Trumpers,” Lincoln Project folks, and other Reagan-Bush Republicans who still identify with the party but wish to move it away from Trump’s legacy. They would likely argue that things didn’t have to be this bad for their party. A more typical nominee (Jeb Bush? Marco Rubio?) would have beaten Hillary Clinton in 2016 and easily won reelection in 2020. They might note that leaders of democracies that have handled the pandemic reasonably well have handily won over the approval of voters.
Indeed, many of those making these arguments would be those who wrote and embraced the party’s Growth and Opportunity Project, the party’s famous 2012 post-mortem, which argued that Republicans had lost that year because they had alienated immigrant communities, women, people of color, and others, and that they should seek to be a more inclusive coalition.
This is indeed an unfinished discussion within the GOP. While the party obviously took a different turn in its nomination of Donald Trump in 2016, that nomination was decidedly unconventional -- party insiders didn’t really anoint or even point to a favorite, and many even harshly criticized Trump on his march to the nomination. His loss to Clinton in the fall would have forced a conversation within the party about how they conduct nominations and whether they should have listened to the 2012 post-mortem.
They may be more willing to have that conversation now. Although Republicans don’t normally do this after a loss, they might be open to a discussion about changing their nomination processes, much as Democrats did after 2016, possibly trying to build in a stronger role for party leaders to steer decisions.
More generally, there will be narratives generated about whether the party needs to actually reach out to more voters. Much of their recent governing strategy has focused on taking advantage of institutions biased in favor of rural, more Republican states -- the Electoral College, the Senate, and, consequently, the Supreme Court. They have been far more successful protecting those advantages than in winning over new voters, as evidenced by their popular vote losses in seven of the past eight presidential elections. Are these advantages enough? Or is it time to start trying to attract people to the party?
It is not at all clear which narrative will dominate in the party’s post-election arguments, and they may end up playing out in the primaries of 2022 and even in the presidential nomination contests of 2024. But it’s an argument the Republicans can no longer ignore.