POSTED: Wednesday, November 7, 2012 - 6:32pm
UPDATED: Friday, November 9, 2012 - 2:05pm
BOSTON (CNN) -- Before Republicans went looking for answers Tuesday night, some of them went looking for the remote.
When it became clear about midnight that President Barack Obama was safely on the way to re-election, a handful of cranky and inebriated Republican donors wandered about Romney's election night headquarters, angrily demanding that the giant television screens inside the ballroom be switched from CNN to Fox News, where Republican strategist Karl Rove was making frantic, face-saving pronouncements about how Ohio was not yet lost.
Rove was wrong, of course.
But the signs of desperation inside the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center on Tuesday night were symptomatic of a Republican Party now standing at a crossroads, with not much track in sight.
How did Romney lose a race that seemed so tantalizingly within reach just one week ago?
"We were this close," one of Romney's most senior advisers sighed after watching the Republican nominee concede. "This close."
Little support from young, minorities
Some answers are easy.
Romney lost embarrassingly among young people, African-Americans and Hispanics, a brutal reminder for Republicans that their party is ideologically out of tune with fast-growing segments of the population.
Obama crushed Romney among Hispanic voters by a whopping 44 points, a margin of victory that likely propelled the president to victories in Nevada, Colorado and possibly Florida.
The stunning defeat alarmed Republicans who fear extinction unless the party can figure out how to temper the kind of hardline immigration rhetoric that Romney delivered during his Republican primary bid.
"Latinos were disillusioned with Barack Obama, but they are absolutely terrified by the idea of Mitt Romney," said GOP fundraiser Ana Navarro, a confidante to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio.
Sandy upsets campaign 'momentum'
Beyond the ugly math staring them in the face, Romney's top aides and the Republican heavyweights who populated the somber ballroom Tuesday evening offered an array of explanations for their loss.
With some of them double-fisting beers and others sipping bourbon, members of Romney's team blamed several factors that were, in some ways, beyond their control.
Many campaign aides pointed the finger at Sandy, the punishing superstorm and October surprise that razed the East Coast and consumed news coverage for what was supposed to be the final full week of campaigning.
It upset the dynamic of a campaign that had been reset during the first debate in Denver, where Obama delivered a wilting-flower act in full view of the American populace that allowed Romney to seize control of the race and set the terms for the final fall sprint.
The storm, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told CNN on Sunday, "broke Romney's momentum."
After being criticized in the media for focusing on "small things" like Big Bird and "Romnesia," Sandy offered Obama a chance to once again look presidential.
There also are very real hard feelings inside the Romney camp about the way New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, seemed to lavish praise on Obama in the wake of Sandy's destruction, allowing Obama to appear bipartisan just as Romney was attacking him for being petty and partisan.
"He didn't have to bear hug the guy," complained one Romney insider.
"It won't be forgotten easily," grumbled another about Christie.
Social conservatives blame squishy positions
As Romney aides began the soul-searching that usually follows a loss, Republicans outside the campaign began pointing fingers at the team.
Some social conservatives were quick to rip open barely healed wounds, claiming that Romney's squishy positions on abortion and same-sex marriage -- closely scrutinized during both of his Republican primary campaigns -- left grass-roots Republicans uninspired.
"What was presented as discipline by the Romney campaign by staying on one message, the economy, was a strategic error that resulted in a winning margin of pro-life votes being left on the table," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List.
Some wondered aloud about the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as Romney's running mate, suggesting that a Republican from a more winnable battleground state might have made a difference.
"Rob Portman would've been worth 1% in Ohio," said former Ohio GOP Chairman Kevin DeWine. "Marco Rubio would've been worth a point in Florida. Bob McDonnell would've been worth a point in Virginia."
The Romney team and his super PAC allies, some Republicans are already saying, ran a banal series of television ads and allowed their candidate to be defined early on by Obama as an outsourcing plutocrat who wanted to let Detroit go bankrupt.
Their pushback seemed feeble for most of the summer and early autumn. And crucially, Romney never seemed to articulate a clear rationale for the presidency.
The campaign's decision to air a misleading ad in Toledo media market about Chrysler moving Jeep production to China during the closing days of the race is also emerging as a prime reason for Romney's loss in the state he needed to win most.
One senior Ohio Republican called the Jeep ad a "desperate" move and said the Romney campaign walked into a "hornet's nest" of negative press coverage.
Nick Everhart, a Columbus-based ad maker, blamed the Ohio loss, in part, on the Romney campaign's "poor media buying."
But an adviser to one prominent Republican governor who campaigned for Romney said the campaign's problems were more fundamental.
"Obama ran a very smart but very small campaign, which he could afford to do because he was running against a very small opponent," this Republican said. "The fundamentals of the election were the same all along, and they were this: When there's an incumbent no one wants to vote for, and a challenger that no one wants to vote for, people will vote for the incumbent. At no point did Romney give people any reason to vote for him, and so they didn't."
Democrats' strong ground game
Romney may never have been the GOP's dream candidate, but even if he were, Republicans would still have been forced to confront another troubling structural problem on Election Day.
Democrats showed decisively that their ground game -- the combined effort to find, persuade and turn out voters -- is devastatingly better than anything their rivals have to offer.
In 2004, Republicans tapped the science of microtargeting to redefine campaigns. That is now ancient history.
"When it comes to the use of voter data and analytics, the two sides appear to be as unmatched as they have ever been on a specific electioneering tactic in the modern campaign era," Sasha Issenberg, a journalist and an expert in the science of campaigning, wrote just days before the election proved him right. "No party ever has ever had such a durable structural advantage over the other on polling, making television ads, or fundraising, for example."
The Romney campaign and the Republican National Committee entered Election Day boasting about the millions of voter contacts -- door knocks and phone calls -- they had made in all the key states.
Volunteers were making the calls using an automated VOIP-system, allowing them to dial registered voters at a rapid clip and punch in basic data about them on each phone's keypad, feeding basic information into the campaign's voter file.
But volunteer callers were met with angry hang-ups and answering machines just as much as actual voters on the other end of the line. It was a voter contact system that favored quantity over quality.
At the same time, the campaign's door-to-door canvassing effort was heavily reliant on fired-up but untrained volunteers.
Obama organizers, meanwhile, had been deeply embedded in small towns and big cities for years, focusing their persuasion efforts on person-to-person contact.
The more nuanced data they collected, often with handwritten notes attached, were synced nightly with their prized voter database in Chicago.
After the dust had cleared, the GOP field operation, which had derided the Obama operation and gambled on organic Republican enthusiasm to push them over the top, seemed built on a house of cards.
"Their deal was much more real than I expected," one top Republican with close ties to the Romney campaign said of the Obama field team.
Sources involved in the GOP turnout effort admitted they were badly outmatched in the field by an Obama get-out-the-vote operation that lived up to their immense hype -- except, perhaps, in North Carolina, where Romney was able to pull out a win and Republicans swept to power across the state.
Multiple Romney advisers were left agog at the turnout ninjutsu performed by the Obama campaign, both in early voting and on Election Day.
Not only did Obama field marshals get their targeted supporters to the polls, they found new voters and even outperformed their watershed 2008 showings in some decisive counties, a remarkable feat in a race that was supposed to see dampened Democratic turnout.
In Florida's Hillsborough County, home to Tampa, the Obama campaign outpaced their final 2008 tally by almost 6,000 votes. In Nevada's vote-rich Clark County, Obama forces scrounged up almost 9,000 more votes than they did four years ago.
Tuesday's outcome laid bare this truth: The two campaigns placed very different bets on the nature of the 2012 electorate, and the Obama campaign won decisively.
Romney officials had modeled an electorate that looked something like a mix of 2004 and 2008, only this time, Democratic turnout would be depressed, and the most motivated voters would be whites, seniors, Republicans and independents.
Heading into Election Day, the Romney campaign's final set of internal poll numbers showed their candidate with a 6-point lead in New Hampshire, a 3-point lead in Colorado, a 2-point lead in Iowa, a 3-point lead in Florida and near ties in Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Ohio was their biggest problem. According to the campaign's internal polls obtained by CNN, Romney was trailing in the must-win state by a full 5 points on the Sunday before the election, the last day of tracking.
Officials in Boston dispatched Romney for a pair of 11th-hour campaign stops in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, a show of Election Day vitality and confidence that was, in reality, a last-ditch attempt to move the needle with just hours until the polls closed.
The Obama campaign was of a different mindset.
Late last month, a few days before Halloween, four members of Obama's senior campaign staff -- deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, pollster Joel Benenson, battleground state director Mitch Stewart and press secretary Ben LaBolt -- flew from Chicago to Washington to brief reporters on the state of the race.
With the president's campaign on the ropes in the wake of his awful debate performance in Denver, the quartet had a straightforward, math-driven sales pitch.
The share of the national white vote would decline as it has steadily in every election since 1992. There would be modest upticks in Hispanic and African-American voter registration, shifts that would overwhelmingly favor the president. And Obama's get-out-the-vote operation was vastly more sophisticated than the one being run by Romney and the Republican National Committee.
On Monday, the night before the election, the Obama campaign was optimistic their vision would pan out. A relaxed group of about 60 campaign staffers including campaign manager Jim Messina decamped to Houlihan's, just up the street from their Chicago headquarters on Michigan Avenue, to drink beers and take in Obama's final speech in Des Moines on C-SPAN.
The following morning, bagels were delivered to headquarters for breakfast. Pizza was on the menu for dinner. Some staffers in the in the campaign's press wing turned on the Oxygen channel to watch a marathon of "America's Next Top Model" -- a "mindless escape," in the words of one campaign operative. When the results started flowing in, each chapter appeared to unfold as planned.
The office burst into loud cheers when Pennsylvania and Wisconsin turned blue early in the evening, two very large pieces of mortar in a growing electoral roadblock for Romney.
And when Ohio was called for the president, the year-long avalanche of G-chats, e-mails and text messages between reporters and campaign sources fell silent as Obama-world closed ranks to celebrate their hard-won -- and meticulously planned -- victory.