There’s a hypothesis circulating among Republicans that Mitt Romney lost in 2012 because a large number of previously reliable conservatives who turned out in past elections stayed home. Here’s the problem: It’s not accurate.
First, let’s look at voter turnout. It dropped to 129.2 million in 2012 from 131.5 million in 2008, according to David Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Elections.
But the drop-off was not among conservatives. According to exit polls, self-identified conservatives made up 35% of the 2012 turnout, and 82% of them voted for Mr. Romney. This translates into about 45.2 million conservatives who turned out—roughly 531,000 more than in 2008.
In 2008 conservatives were 34% of the turnout, and 78% voted for John McCain. So Mr. Romney got around 2.2 million more conservative voters than Mr. McCain—and the conservative share of the 2012 electorate was the highest since exit polls began asking voters about their political leanings in 1976.
Here’s another way of looking at the electorate. The number of self-identified conservative voters rose to about 45.2 million in 2012 from 30.6 million in 2000. And the number of conservatives voting for the Republican presidential candidate rose to about 37.1 million in 2012 from 25.1 million in 2000.
Still, Mr. Romney would have needed an estimated 7.7 million additional conservative voters (assuming he took 82% of them) to beat President Obama. But that implies that conservative voters would have constituted nearly 39% of the turnout. This has never happened.
To be sure, there are self-identified conservatives who didn’t vote in 2012. But consider what this probably means. If the opportunity to vote against Mr. Obama after four years in office wasn’t enough to turn them out, the most likely reason is that they are not politically engaged and tend to be drawn to a candidate less on political philosophy and more because of personal characteristics. These are unreliable voters who are difficult to turn out.
But what about white evangelicals, a group that has been an important part of the GOP’s winning presidential coalition and whose turnout did decline in 2012? They made up 26% of turnout in 2012, the same as in 2008 and up from 23% in 2004.
However, because total voter turnout was lower in 2012 than in 2008, there were an estimated 580,000 fewer white evangelical voters, based on David Leip’s Atlas numbers and exit polls. Mr. Romney won 78% of them, compared with Mr. McCain’s 74%. In short, Mr. Romney got around 913,000 more white evangelical votes than did Mr. McCain.
Republicans concerned about voters who failed to show up should look elsewhere. There were approximately 4.9 million fewer self-identified moderates, 1.7 million fewer white Catholics, and 1.2 million fewer women who voted in 2012 than in 2008.
While Mr. Obama carried both moderates and women in 2012, it is likely that those in each group who dropped out of the electorate were unwilling to support Mr. Obama a second time but simply couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Mr. Romney.
Similarly, while Mr. Romney carried 59% of white Catholics who voted in 2012, those who didn’t turn out appear to be middle-class and often blue-collar voters, like those in GOP-leaning counties in northwestern Ohio, who would never vote to re-elect Mr. Obama but apparently felt Mr. Romney did not care about people like them.
These missing moderate, white Catholic and women voters who didn’t vote in 2012 can be motivated to vote for a Republican candidate in 2016—if they think that candidate cares about people like them. Still, getting back some voters in these three groups, while also generating higher turnout among conservatives who generally don’t vote, is probably not enough. To win, the GOP must also do a good deal better among Hispanic, Asian-American and African-American voters than they have since 2004.
Doing better with any of these segments of the electorate does not require a Republican presidential candidate to forsake a conservative message. It does require finding the right message and presenting it in a compelling way to people not usually drawn to the GOP or motivated to turn out.
The three Republicans who won the presidency in the past 40 years offered clear, consistent conservative messages and themes from the day they entered the race. They understood the impressions they created in the primaries largely determined the general election’s outcome—and that building a broad, winning, center-right coalition was too difficult and too important a task to leave until after the convention and the campaign’s final four months. It’s a lesson worth remembering in 2016.
A version of this article appeared April 2, 2015, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline The Myth Of The Stay-At-Home Republicans and online at WSJ.com.