Updated Wednesday, November 7, 2012 at 03:59 PM
Mitt Romney's loss to a Democratic president wounded by a weak economy is certain to spur a bitter struggle over the future of the Republican Party, but the strength of the party's conservatives in Congress and the rightward tilt of the next generation of party leaders could limit any course correction.
With their party on the verge of losing the popular presidential vote for the fifth time in six elections, Republicans across the political spectrum anticipate a prolonged and probably divisive period of self-examination.
The coming debate will be centered on whether the party should keep pursuing the anti-government focus that grew out of resistance to the health-care law and won it the House in 2010, or whether it should focus on a strategy that recognizes the demographic tide running strongly against it.
"There will be some kind of war," predicted Mike Murphy, a longtime Republican Party consultant, suggesting it would pit "mathematicians" like him, who argue that the party cannot keep surrendering the votes of Hispanics, blacks, younger voters and college-educated women, against the party purists, or "priests," as he puts it, who believe that basic conservative principles can ultimately triumph without much deviation.
"We are in a situation where the Democrats are getting a massive amount of votes for free," Murphy said.
The debate will not just be about demographics. Ralph Reed, a veteran of the conservative movement, said that Romney's loss would stir resentment among those who believe the party made a mistake in nominating a more centrist Republican who had to work to appeal to the party's base.
"There's definitely a feeling that it would be better to nominate a conservative of long-standing conviction," he said.
As a party, Republicans continue to depend heavily on older working-class white voters in rural and suburban America — a shrinking percentage of the overall electorate — while Democrats rack up huge majorities among urban voters including blacks, Hispanics and other minorities. Not to mention younger Americans who are inclined to get their political news from Comedy Central and will not necessarily become more conservative as they age. The disparity means that Democrats can get well under 50 percent of the white vote and still win the presidency, a split that is only going to widen in the future.
According to exit polls, about seven in 10 Hispanics said they were voting for President Obama. Romney won the support of nearly six in 10 whites. In urban areas, white voters were split over the two candidates, but about six in 10 white voters in the suburbs went for Romney, as did nearly two-thirds in rural areas.
Romney won a majority of voters 65 or older, while Obama was backed by six in 10 Americans younger than 30, and won a narrow majority of those younger than 44.
Even as they absorbed Romney's defeat, the party's top elected officials, strategists and activists said they believed that Republicans had offered a persuasive message of economic opportunism and fiscal restraint. While the messenger may have been flawed, they argued, Republicans should not stray from that approach in a moment of panic.
"The party has to continually ask ourselves, what do we represent?" said Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican seen as a top White House contender in 2016. "But we have to remain the movement on behalf of upward mobility, the party people identify with their hopes and dreams. People want to have a chance."
Besides Rubio, Rep. Paul Ryan, the unsuccessful vice-presidential candidate, will now be seen as a chief party voice, as will Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
House Republicans particularly can be expected to gravitate to Ryan.
As possible counterbalances, Republicans point to former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, who has shown an ability to connect with Hispanic voters, and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who has been able to win in a blue state. But the more conservative up-and-comers seem to have the upper hand for now, even in defeat.
And while Senate Republicans did not make the gains they anticipated — and some of their likely wins became losses in races where their candidates were deemed too extreme — they added internally to their conservative ranks, with victories by Ted Cruz in Texas and other Republicans expected to pick off Democratic seats.
With House Republicans easily holding on to their majority, Republicans will arguably be more conservative in the 113th Congress than they were in the 112th.
The first test of whether Republicans see any political need to be more conciliatory will come quickly in the lame-duck session of Congress this month, when they will face pressure from the White House, congressional Democrats and perhaps the Senate Republican leadership to strike a deal to avert the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the beginning of automatic across-the-board spending cuts.
If rank-and-file Republicans dig in, it will be seen as a strong indication that they remain unwilling to make the kind of concessions they fear could bring them primary-election challenges or cost them in a future presidential primary.
To some in the centrist wing of the party, the need to move toward the middle could not have been more obvious as Republicans came into the 2012 election cycle with built-in advantages in both the presidential and congressional contests.
Though many Republicans still see no impetus for drastic change, there seems to be a growing consensus that the party needs to somehow repair its relations with the nation's Hispanics, a group that has socially and fiscally conservative tendencies and one in which Republicans enjoyed some success during the administration of former President George W. Bush.
But that support has deteriorated steadily since the 2004 election. Rubio, a Cuban American, said his party has to strike a different tone on immigration, push for improvements in the existing immigration system and talk more about the capacity to enter the United States legally.
JUSTIN SULLIVAN / GETTY IMAGES
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney; his wife, Ann; and their family wave to the crowd after he concedes the race in Boston on Tuesday night. According to exit polls, Romney won the support of nearly six in 10 whites and a majority of voters 65 or older.