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

Jul 15, 2020
Originally published on July 20, 2020 2:23 am

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 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When President Obama was reelected, the Republican Party put together an autopsy examining how the GOP needed to diversify its support. Well, that report is virtually unrecognizable under President Donald Trump. In many ways, he did the opposite of what was recommended. As Trump seeks reelection, NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben caught up some of the people who wrote that plan to see what they think of the party's future.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: A little less than eight years ago, Republicans were grieving another presidential election loss.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITT ROMNEY: I have just called President Obama to congratulate him on his victory.

KURTZLEBEN: Mitt Romney's defeat kicked off a reckoning within the party. As a result, the GOP produced a 2013 report that came to be known as the autopsy, laying out how the party should set itself up for future wins. Nearly eight years later, Senator Romney was marching in opposition to police brutality. He told The Washington Post why.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROMNEY: ...Find a way to end violence and brutality and to make sure that people understand that Black lives matter.

KURTZLEBEN: That would seem to put him on the path Republicans laid out. The autopsy told the party to do better outreach to communities of color, as well as women and young voters. In unveiling the report in 2013, then-RNC chair Reince Priebus was frank.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REINCE PRIEBUS: We know that we have problems. We've identified them, and we're implementing the solutions to fix them.

KURTZLEBEN: Besides recommending outreach to more voters, the report made a major policy recommendation - a comprehensive immigration overhaul.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

KURTZLEBEN: Much of that plan seemed to go out the window when Donald Trump ran for president and won, despite losing among nonwhite women and young voters. Today, the autopsy is a window into the GOP's internal divisions. One of the report's five authors calls the report, quote, "obviously a failure." Sally Bradshaw, who has since left politics and the party, declined to speak to NPR. In an email, she added, quote, "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."

Republican pollster Whit Ayres says that the GOP just might lose power this year as a consequence of not having followed the autopsy's recommendations.

WHIT AYRES: 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.

KURTZLEBEN: Trump found short-term success, he says, but at a cost.

AYRES: 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.

KURTZLEBEN: Importantly, some authors don't see the autopsy as a failure. Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush, believes Trump accomplished what the report asked for - in a way.

ARI FLEISCHER: The Trump campaign did what we recommended but did it in a way we did not recommend. Trump's outreach was to expand and grow the party in the direction of blue collar, noncollege-educated voters.

KURTZLEBEN: Fleischer is 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, if only barely.

FLEISCHER: 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.

KURTZLEBEN: However, Trump has also continued to say racist things, and many people of color feel targeted by his policies. Another report author, South Carolina RNC member Glenn McCall, points to some of the party's recent successes.

GLENN MCCALL: We've had our best election cycle this year of recruiting more women to run for office and not just at the federal but at the state level as well.

KURTZLEBEN: Overall, though, securing the party's future means at some point winning more of today's young voters. Charlotte Alter is a journalist and author of "The Ones We've Been Waiting For," a book about millennials and politics.

CHARLOTTE ALTER: Trump has never done well with young voters, 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.

KURTZLEBEN: 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, years from now.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.