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Trump Defied The 2013 GOP Autopsy. So Was It A 'Failure'?

When Mitt Romney (right) and his running mate Paul Ryan lost the 2012 presidential race to Barack Obama, it inspired the party to conduct an "autopsy" of what went wrong. Today, some Republicans question that report's value.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
When Mitt Romney (right) and his running mate Paul Ryan lost the 2012 presidential race to Barack Obama, it inspired the party to conduct an "autopsy" of what went wrong. Today, some Republicans question that report's value.

Just under eight years ago, Republicans were recovering from a stinging presidential election loss after Mitt Romney lost to President Obama by 126 electoral votes.

And so the GOP produced a 2013 report that came to be known as the "autopsy," laying out how the party should move forward — most notably, that it should expand its outreach to communities of color, women and young voters.

Flash-forward to this spring, when Romney marched in opposition to police brutality and declared that "Black lives matter."

A voter who had somehow missed all political news from the past seven years might look at Mitt Romney marching with Black Lives Matter supporters and think the party was closely following the autopsy.

But then, that is not where the rest of the party is — and it's emphatically not where the president is. In fact, President Trump mocked Romney for marching with those protesters — and Romney is himself one of the president's loudest elected Republican critics.

Meanwhile, Trump is currently well behind Joe Biden with nonwhite, female, and young voters. And he won in 2016 despite losing those groups by sizable margins.

That's not the only way he defied the autopsy, which also specifically recommended a comprehensive immigration overhaul. Trump, in his 2016 campaign, infamously portrayed immigrants crossing the border from Mexico as dangerous.

"They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists," he said in his campaign announcement speech, "and some I assume are good people."

Today, the autopsy is a window into the GOP's internal divisions — as well as pressures that some fear will hurt the party for generations to come.

"Obviously a failure"

When then-RNC chair Reince Priebus unveiled the report in 2013, he was frank: things had to change.

"If there's one message I want everyone to take away from here, it's this: we know that we have problems, we've identified them, and we're implementing solutions to fix them," he said.

Today, one of the autopsy's five authors thinks the fixes didn't work. Former Republican strategist Sally Bradshaw, who has since left politics and the party, calls the report "obviously a failure."

She declined to speak to NPR, but in an email she added, "My hope is that Trump will lose in November, Republicans will lose the Senate, and the GOP will be forced to rebuild with conservatives focused on the power of ideas."

The party is indeed in danger of losing power as a consequence of not having followed the autopsy's recommendations, according to Republican pollster Whit Ayres.

"For the most part, the Republican Party has done the opposite of what was recommended in the 2013 autopsy," he said. "That's part of the reason why so many rapidly changing demographic states are now in play for the Democrats that used to be solidly Republican — states like Arizona and Texas and Georgia and North Carolina."

Trump found short-term success, he says, but at a cost, as America's electorate grows more diverse with every passing year.

"For the Republican Party to be successful in the long run. It's going to have to adapt to a changing America, not react against it," he added.

Can Trump's outreach work?

In early 2016, Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush, told Politico that if Trump lost the general election, "you'll actually have a story that says we were right" in the autopsy. Today, he believes Trump in 2016 accomplished what the report asked for — if only in a sideways way.

"I think it's fair to say that the Trump campaign did what we recommended. But did it in a way we did not recommend," he said. "Trump's outreach was to expand and grow the party in the direction of blue collar, non-college-educated voters.

He's optimistic that Trump can further expand among nonwhite voters. Exit polls suggest that in 2016, Trump did better than other recent nominees among Black, Latino and Asian voters, though barely.

"When you talk about what Trump said about Mexicans coming here and the wall — even having said those things, he did better than Romney and McCain," Fleischer said.

(Importantly, some experts have since called the 2016 exit polls' reliability into question.)

However, Trump has also continued to say racist things, and many people of color feel targeted by his policies. As he has dug in on appealing to his base via the topics of race and culture, it's not clear that he could hold onto them and expand his reach at the same time.

Fleischer also acknowledged that the party has "a striking problem with suburban college-educated women."

Another autopsy co-author, South Carolina Republican committeeman Glenn McCall, sees at least one stepping stone to getting more female voters.

"We've had our best election cycle this year of recruiting more women to run for office at the national and state level," he said. "We have to promote them, and we have to talk about the issues that are important to talk to women and especially single moms and suburban women."

It's also true that the report had recommendations well beyond demographic change and immigration reform. Fleischer and McCall both pointed out that the GOP data operation is much stronger than it was in 2012.

In addition, the report called for improvements to the party's fundraising infrastructure. Today, Republicans have a WinRed digital fundraising platform to rival Democrats' ActBlue.

Winning young, diverse voters

Overall, though, securing the party's future means at some point winning more of today's young voters.

"Trump has never done well with young voters," said Charlotte Alter, correspondent at Time and author of The Ones We've Been Waiting For, a book about millennials and politics. "But the Republican Party was losing young people even before Trump. Trump just kind of made it a lot harder to get those young people back."

It's true that exit polls don't suggest Trump faltered more with young voters than Romney and McCain did.

However, Alter believes that he's setting the party up for future failure by not wading into policy areas that some young conservatives support, like combating climate change. And there are some warning signs for the GOP: polling has shown millennials, and particularly millennial women, straying from the party.

Moreover, winning young voters necessarily means winning over nonwhite voters. Younger voters are far more diverse than older voters.

It may mean that judging the wisdom of the report — and how important it was whether Trump followed it closely — is a question that may not be answered in November, but instead, decades from now.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.