Following Mitt Romney's defeat in his run for president in 2012, his Republican party did what all parties do: It went through a mourning period. Officials dished, often anonymously, about mistakes the campaign made and began searching for a new path to victory.
The internal debates and public handwringing produced two prescriptions that were very much at odds.
Seasoned operatives argued that in order for the GOP to win back the White House, the party needed to be more inclusive, with toned down rhetoric and legislative pursuits like immigration reform. Others inside the GOP were convinced that Romney had lost not because he alienated people of color and female voters, but because he just wasn't inspirationally conservative enough.
That internal party debate persists on the campaign trail today. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is making a case that the party needs to inspire its base, while Jeb Bush (R-Fla.), John Kasich (R-Ohio) and others want to expand the party’s appeal (while still brandishing their conservative bonafides).
That two diametrically different conclusions could be drawn from one electoral defeat shouldn't be surprising. Pinpointing a singular, persuasive lesson from the 2012 race has been difficult even for those who ran the Romney campaign.
In the latest episode of Candidate Confessional, Stuart Stevens, Romney's top strategist, revisits the stumbles, missteps, high points and ultimately painful conclusion of that race. He provides some incredible stories (sorry, you're gonna have to listen for those), and valuable insights about Republican presidential politics.
Despite popular perceptions, Stevens says that the data doesn't show that Obama won because of his campaign's famous "Get Out The Vote" operation -- which, Stevens added, is not exactly reassuring news for Republicans. "It’s a more sober conclusion to come to, say 70,000 more African-Americans voted in Ohio because they wanted to vote ... not because there was a half-dozen smart people in a cave," he said.
And even though the Romney campaign seemed to crumble after the candidate was caught on tape claiming that 47 percent of the country was willfully dependent on government largesse, Stevens didn't see that as particularly consequential.
"It was an interesting piece of video," he said, dismissively. "I don’t think it made any difference in the race."
What did make a difference, at least from Steven's vantage point, was that a massive hurricane touched down on the eastern seaboard shortly before people went to vote. A president who was looking for a message suddenly was being praised for his poise and leadership.
“It definitely had a huge impact," said Stevens. “It definitely cost us Florida. I think it definitely cost us Virginia. I can’t tell you if it cost Ohio. I can't tell you it cost us Colorado."
Obama did win both Florida and Virginia by close margins. And polling showed high favorability in his handling of the response to Hurricane Sandy. But did a storm really cost Romney the presidency?
It's impossible to say, said Stevens. Even if Romney had won those two states, Obama still had the electoral college votes to win. At a minimum, however, Sandy complicated the closing argument that Stevens had been hoping to make. And because of that, it has become harder for Republicans to draw clearer lessons from that 2012 loss.
"Every time I’ve ever defeated an incumbent, it’s like an NBA game at the end, [it’s] close, you have to control the ball,” Stevens said. “So, [Hurricane Sandy] took away your ability to control the ball. Now, it’s not to say that on that Thursday you wouldn’t have gone out and said something really stupid and lost by more. You don’t know. But it took away that ability.”
Listen to the podcast above, or download it on iTunes. And while you're there, please subscribe to, rate and review our show. Make sure to tune in to next week's episode, when our guest will be Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor of Texas in 2014.