Here's what is in your gut if you're a Republican. You know you should have won this election. You know that this election might have been the last election you should have won with the current collection of interests that make up your party.
While your elites will twist their wrists to the point of breaking and the media will write about the Coming Civil War inside your party that you know ain't going to be civil, what is to be done?
One piece of advice: Reject magical thinking. It is magical to think that the big problem with the GOP has to do with "narrative" or message or words. It is magical to think that your primary process somehow could have produced a different, more likeable candidate who said the same things that Mitt Romney did and would have been any more electable. It is magical to think that the only thing wrong with your party is how it dresses, what it tastes like, or how it smells. It's not about making other people like Republicans; it's about — sorry to say — changing the party substantively to address their concerns and interests.
Another piece of advice: Go back to basics. What is it that makes you feel like a Republican? Did you identify with a candidate, early on, like Ronald Reagan, and just kept on identifying as a partisan? Were your parents Republican? Is there a set of issues that Republicans address in a way that makes sense to you? Do you know mostly Republicans? Whatever your answers are to these questions, consciously try to set them aside and imagine yourself a first-time voter who has different parents, or didn't grow up idolizing Ronald Reagan, or is of a different race or gender, or takes the opposite position on a particular issue. Ask yourself: What is it that would make this person decide to vote for a Republican?
Then, be smart. Bring in some data about demographics and extrapolate. The current Republican coalition is not going to win elections anymore. The replacement rate among white voters is much less than the addition rate among minority voters. There is nothing — nothing — you can do to make this reality go away. The trap of demography is steel tight. Two numbers explain why: Republicans will need to get more than six in 10 white voters from here on out. Every general election cycle, that ratio will grow because the relative proportion of white voters to others in the electorate will shrink. Democrats need to get eight out of 10 black, Hispanic and Asian voters. Call this the 80/40 split. National Journal's Ronald Brownstein coined the term. It is the new baseline.
It may be that your party has to change its position on a few key issues. That's right. It has to change its position. Not "reposition." Not re-message. Not dress differently. But simply change course.
If the next Republican nominee pushes a platform that includes comprehensive immigration reform, including some form of legalization mechanism for current undocumented immigrants, then the party has a good chance of picking away a large number of Hispanics from the Democratic Party. The party could take the teeth out of the immigration issue entirely by compromising with President Obama on immigration during the next term.
President George W. Bush was able to manage a measure of this in 2004, and he did it even while his white voter base expressed anger. In the end, they didn't leave him, and many Hispanics loved him. The GOP took home 3.5 out of every 10 Hispanic votes in the 2010 midterms. That's where they need to be during general elections. If their primary gauntlet trips up pro-immigration candidates, the trap will remain shut.
If Republicans drop their opposition to gay marriage, the chances that Democrats will continue to pick up majorities of new and young voters will diminish. Gay issues are the civil rights issue of the time. Many of these voters see the party's implacable opposition to equal treatment for gays and simply turn away. The GOP is killing itself by giving libertarian-leaning younger voters a reason to think that the party is held hostage by a loud minority.
Those voters are right. It is hard to imagine a GOP primary where Christian conservatives don't significantly influence the vote and the platform. Until you can imagine a primary where Christian conservatives and their anxieties and fears don't dominate the process, it is hard to imagine a pro-gay, pro-immigrant candidate breaking through. (Jon Huntsman, Jr.?)
The real trap is that there are plenty of Republicans who can win national elections, plenty of conservative Republicans, but that they cannot make it through the filter of the primary, which is not suited to the demography and realities of a modern society.