Life of the Grand Old Party

The "Growth & Opportunity Project" commissioned by the Republican National Committee following the 2012 presidential election was supposed to be the party's blueprint for a rebound back to power.

The 97-page document – more commonly and grimly known as "the autopsy" – was a noble, ambitious enterprise that listed a series of specific recommendations for how the GOP could improve its campaign mechanics, messaging, candidate recruitment and fundraising. No priority was greater than making inroads on demographic diversity: increasing the party's appeal to minorities, women and youth. After Mitt Romney's loss, despite the support of traditional GOP coalitions like white men and evangelical Christians, it was deemed a matter of survival.

"Unless the RNC gets serious about tackling this problem, we will lose future elections," the report's authors warned.

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Former Republican U.S. presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz speaks to delegates from Texas at a breakfast during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 21, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk
Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) practices her appearance at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 18, 2016. REUTERS/Mark Kauzlarich
Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) discusses the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2016 on Capitol Hill in Washington October 1, 2015. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump hugs running mate Governor Mike Pence (R) at the conclusion of the final session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 21, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Marco Rubio announces the suspension of his presidential campaign during a rally in Miami, Florida March 15, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

In many cases, the recommendations in what RNC Chairman Reince Priebus called "the most comprehensive postelection review" in electoral history were pursued – at least to some extent.

"Whether it's a complete 'check the box' here, or that we did positive action to achieving that recommendation, I think that we did that on almost everything," says Ryan Mahoney, the RNC's deputy communications director.

But nearly four years after its submission, a U.S. News investigation – which included interviews with more than three dozen Republicans at all levels across the country – shows that some of the most significant changes sought, particularly on demographic outreach, haven't come to pass.

And the emergence of Donald Trump is not wholly to blame – though it is a significant factor and the reason cited by one of the report's authors, Sally Bradshaw, for leaving the party.

The report touched off a flurry of hiring and enthusiasm, which led its authors to praise the RNC in a one-year checkup published in March of 2014. They commended the committee for its progress on data and digital initiatives and for national and state-based hires it had made.

"I don't have any need for them," Ryan Price, an adviser to the convention's Committee on Arrangements, wrote back to the source, according to an email exchange shared with U.S. News.

Christie says he already has had conversations with a prominent black operative who wants to organize another postmortem analysis around the spring Republican Governors Association meeting, gathering a wider net of voices from academia and policy circles, as well as from politics, to prescribe a path forward.

As for the last report, the RNC's failure to produce few measurable gains wasn't due to inherent neglect or disregard, but occurred rather because the party itself was at odds over what really should change in the first place. Disagreements within about which solutions would be the most useful highlight an enduring disconnect between the party elites, the campaign workers tasked with making these lofty goals a reality and the restless grass-roots.

RNC officials maintain the most profound impact of the report has been a change in culture. Now, in every political equation, the needs of African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans are considered.

So will this year's presidential election be the ultimate test of the autopsy's success?

"I wouldn't say that it's the ultimate test," replies Mahoney, downplaying expectations. "Election Day will tell."

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