Republicans have now lost four of the six presidential elections since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. A season of soul-searching will be healthy, and it is needed to ¬retool and rebrand the party.
Yet despite the stinging defeat and a post-electoral narrative that suggests otherwise, Republicans need not abandon their principles. They must resist the temptation to form a circular firing squad, especially one with evangelicals and their social-conservative allies in the middle.
The media trope that the Grand Old Party resembles a Star Wars bar scene of theocrats and religious extremists has by now become a cliché. A Huffington Post columnist recently alleged that the Republican Party is “a rump parliament of Caucasian traditionalism: white, married, churchgoing—to oversimplify only slightly.” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd claimed that Republicans lost in 2012 because they “tried to force chastity belts on women and made Hispanics, blacks and gays feel like the help,” leading voters to “give white male domination the boot.” Juan Williams of Fox News concluded that demography is destiny and “the cycles of history have turned against the GOP.”
We’ve seen this movie before. In 1992, when George H.W. Bush lost the White House, the political cognoscenti blamed the convention speeches of Patrick Buchanan and Pat Robertson and what one commentator called the “hate-fest in Houston.” A similar pattern prevailed after losses in 1996 and 2008. When Republicans lose, the chattering class always blames religious folk.
Conservative evangelicals are arguably the largest single constituency in the electorate. According to a postelection survey by Public Opinion Strategies, self-identified conservative evangelicals made up 27% of voters in 2012, voting 80% for Mitt Romney compared with 19% for Barack Obama. This represented a net swing of 14 points toward the GOP ticket since 2008 and made up 48% of the entire Romney vote. Mr. Romney, a lifelong Mormon, actually received more evangelical votes than George W. Bush did in 2004.
White Catholic voters, meanwhile, went to Mr. Romney by 19 points, the largest margin among that constituency for a GOP presidential candidate since Richard Nixon in 1972. This was no doubt due in part to their revulsion over the Obama administration’s harsh mandate on religious charities to pay for health services, such as contraception, that assault their conscience and compel them to violate their faith. Catholics who frequently attend Mass (about one in 10 voters) broke two-to-one for Romney.
Contrary to the prevailing stereotype, evangelicals and Catholics aren’t single-issue voters. They care about jobs, taxes and the deficit, and their support for Israel rivals that of the Jewish community. They played an indispensable role in re-electing the Republican House majority, and in electing 30 Republican governors and hundreds of state legislators and local officeholders in recent years. Jettisoning these voters and their ¬issues would be like a football coach responding to a big loss by cutting the team’s leading rusher.
To be sure, the Republicans need to build bridges to Hispanics and minorities, women and younger voters. But unlike the conventional wisdom, social issues properly framed are one of the keys to a stronger, more diverse Republican coalition.
According to Gallup, a majority of Americans now consider themselves pro-life, including one-third of Democrats. Younger voters are one of the most pro-life ¬segments of the electorate, with 51% of college-age -“millennials” stating that having an abortion is morally wrong. A 2012 survey of voters 30 years or younger by Naral Pro-Choice America found that pro-life voters were twice as likely as their pro-choice peers to say abortion is an important issue in determining their vote.
Despite the Obama campaign’s accusation of a Republican “war on women,” Mr. Obama actually won women by a narrower margin than he did in 2008; he lost married women by seven points. Nor did single women—who went heavily Mr. Obama’s way—vote on reproductive issues. Forty-five percent of single women voters listed jobs and the economy as their most important issues, while only 8% said abortion.
If the GOP is serious about reaching out to minorities, social issues are rich soil for finding common ground. Most minority voters are either evangelicals or Catholics. In Ohio in 2004, George W. Bush won 16% of the African-American vote, in part due to his support for traditional marriage. When California voters ratified a traditional-marriage amendment in 2008, support from African-American and Hispanic voters provided the margin of victory.
U.S. Hispanics aren’t monolithic. There are Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Venezuelans and Hondurans, among others. But one of the most ¬reliable predictors of Hispanic voting behavior is religiosity. Roughly 20% of Hispanics are evangelicals (their number increases by 600,000 per year), and 37% of Hispanic voters self-identify as social conservatives. These voters made up a disproportionate share when George W. Bush won 44% of the Hispanic vote in 2004.
To win their support, Republicans must favor a secure border without sounding anti-immigrant. They should welcome those who come to this country legally and play by the rules, while stressing education reform, economic opportunity and lower taxes and regulation on minority-owned businesses.
Republicans were once accused of using “wedge issues” to divide voters based on race, gender and religion. In 2012 it was the Democrats’ turn, and they did so with the hearty applause of the mainstream-media chorus. When Mr. Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, Daily Beast blogger Andrew Sullivan approvingly noted the “cold politics behind it,” aimed at winning young voters and re-engaging disaffected gay fundraisers.
This is the new world. Even in an election about the economy, social issues won’t go away, and denial isn’t a strategy.
Therefore, Republicans should resist the catcalls urging them to give the cold shoulder to evangelicals and other voters of faith who make up the overwhelming majority of their voters. Instead, they must do more: They must practice the politics of addition by reaching out to Hispanics, Asians, women and young people, millions of whom share these same time-honored values.
Mr. Reed is chairman and CEO of Century Strategies and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.