Beyond turnout, white voters were also strongly supportive of Romney, as he tied with Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 at 59% for the third-best Republican performance ever among white voters after President Nixon (67% in 1972) and President Reagan (64% in 1984). The same CNN exit poll showed that 82% of self-identified conservatives voted for Romney — the exact same percentage that supported President Reagan in 1984.
Therefore, in all likelihood Republicans have already maxed out on white conservatives and need to look elsewhere for the gains they’ll need.
Beyond the need to reach out to the rapidly growing Hispanic vote, Republicans also have a ripe target in the suburban areas of the largest Frost Belt cities: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, etc.
Mitt Romney essentially lost the election in three or four states: Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. What do all four states have in common? Lots of suburbanites and/or retired blue-collar workers. Florida now swings with the rest of northern suburbia.
Tipping the Sunshine State to Romney would have given him 235 electoral votes. Adding Pennsylvania (20 votes) and Michigan (16) would have given him a majority of 271, despite the loss in the national popular vote (due to huge Obama margins in traditional Democratic cities New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco). Alternatively, adding Pennsylvania and Ohio (18 votes) would have also won the election for Romney.
Here’s the stat that will have Republicans tearing their hair out: if Romney had just matched Gerard Ford’s 1976 performance of 55% in the suburbs of Philly and Detroit, he would have carried Pennsylvania and Michigan and (assuming Florida also swung) won the Electoral College a la Bush in 2000. Ford lost the 1976 election by two points.
Republicans have lost key big states like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Michigan at least six straight times. But all is not lost for the GOP in the industrial states: if they can recover among suburbanites, they can become quite competitive in the Frost Belt again. With the South, Farm Belt, and Mountain West turning over Republican majorities, the GOP can get to 270 electoral votes by carrying just a few industrial states like Ohio and Missouri or perhaps Pennsylvania, Michigan, or Wisconsin. The last Republican nominee to carry the suburbs of the big Frost Belt cities was the first George Bush, way back in 1988. He is also the last Republican to win resoundingly in the Electoral College by carrying 40 states.
Historically, winning back the suburbs of the major metro areas should be quite do-able for the Republicans in 2016 or 2020. After all, these voters were among the most loyal Republicans dating back to the party’s first victory in 1860 for Abraham Lincoln. From the Civil War to the end of the 1980s, Republicans carried the suburbs of the largest Frost Belt cities in every election except the rare Democratic landslide years of 1912, 1936, and 1964.
In fact, 51% of northern suburbanites voted for Herbert Hoover during the depths of the Depression in 1932.