Top Republican officials, stunned by the extent of their election losses Tuesday night, have begun an exhaustive review to figure out what went so wrong and how to fix it.
Party leaders already had planned to poll voters in battleground states starting Tuesday night in anticipation of a Mitt Romney victory — to immediately begin laying the groundwork for midterm congressional elections and a Romney 2016 reelection bid.
But as they watched one state after another go to President Barack Obama and Senate seats fall away, party leaders quickly expanded and retooled their efforts. They're planning a series of voter-based polls and focus groups, meetings with constituency group leaders, and in-depth discussions with their volunteers, donors and staff members to find ways to broaden their appeal.
The review is a recognition that party leaders were confounded by the electorate that showed up on Tuesday. Republican officials said that they met all of their turnout goals but that they underestimated who would turn out for the other side.
Party officials said the review is aimed at studying their tactics and message, not at changing the philosophical underpinnings of the party.
"This is no different than a patient going to see a doctor," said Sean Spicer, the Republican National Committee's spokesman. "Your number one thing is to say, 'I'm not feeling well. Tell me what the problem is. Run some tests on me.' "
Tuesday's results, along with national and state-level exit polls, illustrated the depth of the GOP's challenges and its growing weaknesses among crucial constituencies, such as Hispanics and women.
Many Hispanics were turned off by tough talk on immigration from Romney during the primary campaign, while Democrats think their candidates benefited from Republican policies on women's health issues and verbal miscues on rape.
Underscoring the thoroughness of the GOP defeat, a Florida exit poll showed that Cuban Americans went for Obama by 49 percent to 47 percent — a watershed moment for a group that has been solidly Republican for a generation.
Although Democrats argue that Tuesday's results point to a potentially long-lasting winning coalition, Republicans are fighting among themselves about what went wrong.
Some party leaders have blamed the losses on the rise of the tea party movement and the growing pressure on GOP candidates to hew to a purist brand of conservatism that wins primaries but turns off voters. Others have taken the opposite view, blaming party establishment leaders and Romney for trying to play to the middle.
RNC officials say their results will help guide Republican lawmakers and governors as they tackle sensitive issues.
The committee's move suggests that Chairman Reince Priebus, who will face reelection in January, may be trying to fill a power vacuum left by Romney's loss and the lack of a clear leader in the party.
The review began on election night with polls in key states, and next week the party will begin a string of voter focus groups.
Priebus and other party officials also will meet with constituency-group leaders representing Hispanics, African Americans, veterans, evangelicals, tea party activists, business groups, youth voters, centrists, Asian Americans and women.
Party officials plan to delve deeply into the Hispanic community, with separate focus group sessions being devoted to Puerto Ricans, a key bloc in central Florida that strongly backed Obama, as well as Mexican Americans and Cuban Americans. Mexican Americans make up the bulk of Hispanic voters in the battleground states of Colorado and Nevada.
The review comes amid signs that the election results have pushed some conservative leaders and officials to consider tackling one of the most politically touchy issues for many Republicans: whether to put millions of illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship. For years, conservatives have blocked immigration legislation. But seeing Obama win seven in 10 Hispanic voters appears to have left some wondering whether it is time to compromise, particularly with the president pledging to make the issue a centerpiece of his second-term agenda.
The Internet was buzzing late Thursday as word spread that Fox News Channel commentator Sean Hannity declared he had "evolved" on the issue and now thinks illegal immigrants without criminal records should have a "pathway to citizenship."
In an interview Thursday with ABC News's Diane Sawyer, House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said the immigration issue "has been around far too long." He said a "comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I'm confident that the president, myself, others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all."
Asked about the GOP's demographic problems, Boehner said: "What Republicans need to learn is: How do we speak to all Americans? You know, not just the people who look like us and act like us, but how do we speak to all Americans?"
The RNC's review, to be conducted over the next two months and handled in some cases by independent firms, will look at the party's get-out-the-vote operations, its national field staff and tactics, online voter-targeting strategy, and donor relationships. About 150,000 volunteers and 600 staff members will be queried on such topics as the quality of the party's technology and voter-contact database to see if other factors contributed to their losses.
"We lost Wisconsin and Iowa, and we didn't lose those because of the Hispanic vote," Spicer said. "This is not a one-trick-pony problem."
The review is designed in part to identify the positives, as well, and keep them in place for the future, he said.
Yet, whatever the Republicans did well, the Democrats did it better. That's why another piece of the GOP review will include a study of Obama's political machinery, including the sprawling network of neighborhood captains and activists in place since the 2008 campaign that appeared to roar back to life in time for Tuesday.
"We've got to know what they did well," Spicer said. "We've got to give them credit, they won. We need to know what we're going to be up against in 2013, 2014 and 2016."Reuse content