A year after Mitt Romney won the straw poll at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, attendees this weekend had no consensus theory for how their candidate lost in November.
Republican soul-searching has been a major theme at CPAC, the right-wing’s blockbuster conference, being held this year outside of Washington in suburban Maryland. But after two days, there is no dominant narrative or talking point to explain their bruising defeat or how to right the Republican ship in 2016.
Romney himself, addressing the conference Friday in his first speech since the election, declined to weigh in. “As someone who just lost the last election, I’m probably not the best person to chart the course for the next election,” Romney demurred.
Panelists offered conflicting explanations. On immigration reform, some — like Pollster Whit Ayers — have urged conservatives to embrace immigration reform. On another panel called “Conservative Inclusion,” speakers argued Republicans need only reach out to minority communities by doing things like attending their churches and eating their “spicy food.” There was a panel called “Should We Shoot All the Consultants Now?” and another on the technology gap between the two parties. The list goes on.
In interviews with CPAC attendees, you hear echoes of some of the dominant theories among the political class about what went wrong — Republicans alienated minority and women voters, ran a poor ground game compared to Democrats’ impressive operation, and possibly nominated the wrong candidate — but nothing approaching a universal or common view of the cause of the GOP’s defeat.
“ORCA,” said Susan Huffman, 60, referring to the the Romney campaign’s online get-out-the-vote tool that famously broke down on Election Day. “I think it was the ORCA thing.”
A small business manager and Romney campaign volunteer, Huffman said she spent Election Day inputting data into ORCA at Romney campaign headquarters in Boston. “I think it just wasn’t tested properly,” she said.
“We could have won if we had a better ground game,” said Jonathan Horton, 25, who works for a group called ParentalRights.org in Virginia.
“Romney was not very relatable,” said Winston Hawks, 20, a member of the College Republicans with Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., who described himself as “totally a Mitt Romney fan.” Hawks described a problem of “relatability” both for the Republican Party in general and Romney as a “super-rich, private equity guy.”
“The media played a very big role in that,” said Ellie Touhey, 69, of Montgomery County, Penn., a volunteer who said she knocked on 1,000 doors for the Republican nominee.
But Touhey also felt Romney had made some mistakes. “I think that he didn’t fight back enough against Obama,” she said.
“I think Hurricane Sandy had a lot to do with it,” said Lacey Bensing, a 17-year old Romney volunteer from Pennylvania. That, she said, and “voter fraud.”
Seth Grossman spent all Friday handing out flyers to promote his primary challenge to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R). A lawyer from Atlantic City, Grossman says Christie is “smothering the economy with high taxes, high debt.” His flyer shows a picture of Christie and President Obama arm-in-arm after Hurricane Sandy.
“I’m not saying that Romney would have won but Romney had a fighting chance,” said Grossman. He nodded to the picture. “And that buried whatever chance he had.”
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.