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The GOP learned one lesson from Romney’s loss. Trump taught them another.

What I learned from rereading the 2013 "autopsy" report.

Donald Trump endorsing Mitt Romney in 2012.
Donald Trump endorsing Mitt Romney in 2012.
Ethan Miller/Getty

Mitt Romney delivered his speech at the University of Utah Thursday like the man at the beginning of a horror movie, warning the protagonists not to follow through with their plans.

"His domestic policies would lead to recession," Romney said somberly. "His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president. And his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill."

His hope was clearly to inspire his party to take a moment of self-reflection in the brief period before Trump amasses enough delegates to make his nomination inevitable. But this is not the first time Mitt Romney inspired the Republican Party to take a moment of self-reflection. And last time, it didn't exactly heal the nascent divisions in the party that Trump has laid bare once and for all.

After Romney lost to President Barack Obama in 2012, the Republican National Committee got a handful of establishment Republicans (some of whom went on to advise Jeb Bush, and all of whom have been vocal in bashing Trump) to write a report. Officially, the resulting report was called the "Growth and Opportunity Project"; unofficially, it's inevitably called the "GOP autopsy report."

Though the effort was serious at the time — telling the Republican party it really needed to turn around its perception among demographic groups they were losing badly — today the autopsy is usually treated as a punchline, and with reason.

Its most memorable recommendation was for Republicans to embrace comprehensive immigration reform, advice they obviously ditched in favor of being on its way to nominating a man whose chief policy proposals include deporting 11 million unauthorized immigrants and building a 50- to 80-foot wall along the Mexican border.

But in light of Romney's reemergence in presidential politics, I went back and read the autopsy report. It's a lot broader than anyone remembered. And some of its recommendations don't just sound similar to Trump's campaign — they illustrate why he's been so successful, and could be so compelling to swing voters in the general election, without having to do everything the autopsy says.

The GOP was supposed to embrace immigration reform as a way of investing in diversity

When the "autopsy" report was released in March 2013, it was firmly on one side of a heated intra-Republican debate about why Republicans had lost in 2012 and what they could do to win in 2016: Should Republicans change on some issues to attract more voters, or should they simply change how they talk about conservative ideas?

Most of the autopsy report appealed to people on both sides of the intra-party debate, because it focused on campaign tactics and party infrastructure. In particular, its authors urged Republicans to get more sophisticated about data and expand their field operation — to increase the quality of their voter contacts.

Those recommendations could be used by any candidate with any message, and the RNC has implemented a lot of them in the intervening three years. "The RNC has done a terrific job of acting on the recommendations of the report, particularly as it relates to growing our data and digital capabilities and building permanent organization to help deliver our message and turn out voters," report author Henry Barbour told Vox.

So even though the Trump campaign is about as far from data-driven as you can get, he's poised to take advantage of the new sophisticated turnout operation if he wins the nomination.

But the report wasn't totally agnostic. It didn't just recommend building better tools, but made suggestions about who the GOP should be targeting with them.

A large section of the "autopsy" report was dedicated to exploring how the GOP could win over new and diverse constituencies: Latinos, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, black voters, women, young voters. The assumption that it should do this was taken as a given. It was baked into the methodology of the report: The committee conducted special surveys of Republican women and Latinos, and held conference calls with members of other constituencies.

With that sort of input, it's not surprising that it urged Republicans to get on board with "comprehensive immigration reform" — which was widely taken as a recommendation to help with Latino voters. It was the only time the report recommended the GOP change its policies to attract new voters to the party.

In this respect, Trump is pretty forcefully rejecting the report's recommendations. "Donald Trump is arguing he is growing the GOP by often times doing just the opposite of what we recommended in our report," said Barbour. "I am sure we could learn from his excellent communication skills, but I don’t believe his style and lack of substance will grow the GOP for the long haul or allow us to win the general election."

But there's another option for how to grow the GOP — one the autopsy report didn't really take into account.

The ongoing fight about whether the GOP needed to expand its coalition, or deepen it

Many of the opponents of comprehensive immigration reform disagreed with the premise of the Growth and Opportunity Project report that reaching out to underrepresented constituencies was an important priority for the GOP to begin with.

But they weren't trying to steer their party over the so-called "demographic cliff" and wreck its political future. They were armed with their own theory of how the GOP could win — one that didn't require the party to adopt a policy opposed by a vocal segment of its base.

Their theory was called the "missing white voters" hypothesis: a term, and a theory, first used by Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics just a few days after the 2012 election. Here's what Trende wrote after analyzing initial data from Obama's defeat of Romney:

The 2012 elections actually weren’t about a demographic explosion with non-white voters. Instead, they were about a large group of white voters not showing up.[...]

Had Latino and African-American voters turned out in massive numbers, we might really be talking about a realignment of sorts, although we would have to see if the Democrats could sustain it with someone other than Obama atop the ticket (they could not do so in 2010). As it stands, the bigger puzzle for figuring out the path of American politics is who these non-voters are, why they stayed home, and whether they might be reactivated in 2016 (by either party).

Republicans who opposed immigration reform quickly took this analysis and turned it into a strategic recommendation. It was often paired with the meme that Mitt Romney had lost because he wasn't conservative enough to turn out Republican voters — which wasn't actually Trende's own reading of the "missing white voters" data, but we'll get to that in a bit.

With those theories conjoined, the choice facing the GOP seemed simple. Support comprehensive immigration reform, and the Republican Party would abandon some of the voters it already had for the chance — not a guarantee — of attracting new ones. Oppose comprehensive immigration reform, and the party would mobilize disaffected whites to start showing up in 2008 numbers again.

The political fight over investing in diversity versus recapturing the "missing white voters" didn't exactly line up with the fight over comprehensive immigration reform — there were Republicans who believed that improving the party's record with Latinos and Asian Americans was important, but moving left on immigration wasn't the way to do it.

But when the party slowly allowed immigration reform to wither in late 2013, then rejected it outright in 2014 when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost a primary challenge to an anti-reform challenger, the "missing white voters" theory provided reassurance to Republicans that they hadn't just lost the White House forever.

Trump understands what really motivated the "missing white voters"

The problem with this is that opposition to comprehensive immigration reform wasn't necessarily enough to turn out the missing white voters — because "missing white voters" and "super-conservative voters" were not the same.

Instead, when Trende looked into the 2012 data in his analysis, he found the missing white voters looked, well, a lot like eventual Trump voters: working-class white voters, many of them secular, in areas in the Northeast and Midwest.

The Growth and Opportunity Project report didn't do a separate survey of working-class, northern white voters. (It did conduct focus groups in Iowa and Ohio with voters who used to consider themselves Republicans but no longer did — but that wasn't really their focus.)

But it's hard not to think about the downwardly mobile lost white voters when reading many of the recommendations the report made about Republican messaging. And while Donald Trump doesn't give any indication that he's read the autopsy report, his campaign seems to have learned these lessons better than anyone else:

  • "Low-income Americans are hardworking people who want to become hard-working middle-income Americans. Middle-income Americans want to become upper-middle-income, and so on. We need to help everyone make it in America."
  • "Our standard should not be universal purity; it should be a more welcoming conservatism."
  • "We have to blow the whistle at corporate malfeasance and attack corporate welfare. We should speak out when a company liquidates itself and its executives receive bonuses but rank-and-file workers are left unemployed. We should speak out when CEOs receive tens of millions of dollars in retirement packages but middle-class workers have not had a meaningful raise in years."
  • "Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, describing the Obama/Walker voters who he says can be key swing voters, told us, 'People in the middle need to feel that someone is fighting for them.'"

Donald Trump — the millionaire that people who aren't millionaires aspire to be like; whose policies are aggressively populist; whose approach to foreign policy is that if you fight harder, you'll get a better deal; who says he wants to be "greedy for America" — is fighting for those people.

It's not surprising that his support is strongest among people who match the "missing white voters" profile: white, less-educated, secular, often Northeastern. It's not surprising that he's inspiring record primary turnout. He has, as my colleague Libby Nelson identified last month, found the missing white voters. And he's done it using a message from right there in the autopsy report.

The report's authors might not have recognized that they were offering a playbook for reaching out to missing white voters, even as they threw in their lot with the Republicans who wanted to invest in diversity instead. But that's what they did, and it may just get them Donald Trump.