When Barack Obama wins re-election this November, a lot of news stories will focus on the obvious questions--what will be accomplished in a second term, how will we meet the budget crisis looming, will gridlock be even worse than it already is--and one of them will be the direction the GOP will take after licking its wounds.
The Republicans will have to face a dire reality--they have been at an electoral disadvantage for presidential elections since the 1980s. There was a time when the party's dominance in the west and midwest, coupled with competitiveness in the northeast and the gradual shift of the south meant the ability to completely trounce the Democrats every four years. California went Republican in every presidential election from 1968 to 1988, and New York was actually a swing state. Today, however, the GOP holds out a futile hope that they MIGHT win New Hampshire, and that's it for anything north of Virginia and east of Ohio. Alaska is the only state touching the Pacific that the Republicans can win anymore, and most of the Great Lakes states are also out of reach. This is now a party that can only count on the south, and most of the (sparsely populated) plains and mountain states. And within all states, the GOP is hopelessly out of the game in urban areas. It has become a strictly rural party on the presidential level at least.
The reason for this is pretty clear--to win the party's nomination and fire up the base for the general election, a Republican who wants to be president must cater to the party's most zealous wing in a way that the Democrats have not had to do for decades. Democrats since the time of Clinton have been able to give the cold shoulder to their party's racial activist wing, environmentalist wing, and organized labor wing in a way that the Republicans simply cannot with regard to their anti-illegal-immigrant wing, or Christian wing, anti-tax wing or neoconservative interventionist wing. Part of the reason for this is self-fulfilling--as the GOP shed many of its moderates since the 1980s (in part due to the rise of the religious right in that party), the Democrats took them in and their own party became less dependent on its left-most supporters. That, and the string of losses at the presidential level--losing every election from 1968 through 1988 except a close one for Jimmy Carter in 1976, and mostly by landslides--made even the Democratic base more willing to be pragmatic and accept a center-drift by its nominees from 1992 onward.
Can the GOP base become more pragmatic as well? After all, the only popular majority they won since 1988 was the 2004 election, and that one was very close as well. However, denial is a powerful thing--many conservatives truly believe that Bill Clinton never would have won in the first place without Ross Perot taking conservative votes away from Bush Sr. (though this is simply not the case), and they note that only Obama in 2008 won an actual majority (rather than a plurality) since that time. The "closeness" of these elections makes it easier for GOP activists to believe that what they're doing will work, whereas a few landslide losses might have splashed some cold water on this way of thinking.
What is likely is that we'll hear the excuse from the activist base that the Republicans lost--again--because they didn't nominate someone sufficiently conservative to "activate the base" which apparently is all that's needed to win big on the presidential level. The thought here is that the country leans right, and a "solid conservative" who can "make the case"--like Ronald Reagan!--could awaken this otherwise subdued mass and win the day. After all, look at the string of Republicans who lost since 1992--Bush Sr., a moderate who raised taxes; Bob Dole, a moderate dealmaker Senator; John McCain, a Teddy Roosevelt-admiring Senator known for crossing the aisle and breaking with the right on many occasions; Mitt Romney, the "Massachusetts Moderate".
There is something to this, of course--each of those also-rans had moderate credentials, and due to this they had to drift right during their campaigns in a way that made them lose independents. None of these guys could really afford a "Sister Souljah Moment" where they broke from the party's right wing, as they were already mistrusted by that wing. In a weird way, a "true" right winger--a politically nimble version of Rick Perry--could win, because such a candidate could afford to tack to the center in the general election. It's no accident that the one Republican to win in this period was George W Bush--a Texas governor with Christian cred--who ran on his ability to reach across the aisle and be a "compassionate" conservative. And whatever you think of his presidency, Bush's best-known accomplishments--the prescription drug benefit, No Child Left Behind, the Iraq Invasion, the PATRIOT Act--and to a lesser degree his tax cuts--managed to get bipartisan support, and those first two measures were not exactly red meat for the right wing.
In my ideal world, the coming Romney loss will be a chance for the GOP to begin an adjustment that would enable it to start attracting moderates again and give less weight to its most extreme wing. It just may take more time in the wilderness for that to happen.