Going back to 1972, at least, a good rule of thumb is that Republicans will lose low turnout elections. High turnout elections have tended towards Republicans, but the reason for the high turnout matters. For instance, Clinton's election in 1992 was a very high turnout, but the semi-spoiler of Ross Perot gave it to the Democrat. Barack Obama's election in 2008 was very high turnout, as people turned out to vote for the First Black President. However, both the 96 and 2012 elections had many fewer votes, relative to the prior cycle.
So it seems that the Republicans' best chance to win elections is to encourage high turnout. High turnout gives Republicans a much better chance of winning than low turnout. So the question becomes, "how do we encourage high turn out?"
Here, I have a suggestion. I do not remember the 1980 and 1984 elections at all. I do recall the 1988 election some (c'mon, I was 8), and I remember 92 and on pretty well. Basing this guess on what I've heard about the Reagan elections, I feel fairly safe in making the suggestion. Conflict wins elections for Republicans.
Reagan did not just run against Carter in 1980, he ran against the idea of Carter as well. That is, he clearly defined two teams, and then asked American voters to join one. People voted in droves, and mostly chose Reagan's team. When Bush 41 ran in 1988, he drew similar team lines. "Read my lips, no new taxes." Contrariwise, Bush 41 lost to Clinton in 92 because he'd reneged on that "no new taxes" pledge, and people could see no difference between the two. The guy who tried to draw clear team lines was Ross Perot, who didn't have the needed infrastructure to win. Bush 44 barely won over Al Gore. The reason that election was so close was, once again, the lines between the two "teams" were blurred.
Of note here is that I'm using the term "team" on purpose. This isn't about parties. One thing Ross Perot's runs in 92 and 96 prove is that there are certain partisans who will always vote for their party. Those aren't the ones who are choosing a team in each election. The teams are for those who are less partisan. Maybe they normally vote R or D, but they can be persuaded. Maybe they don't normally vote at all.
So how do we draw those team lines? We use conflict. Reagan was good at doing this affably, but the conflict needs to exist. Let's take a couple of looks at popular culture to make the point.
American wrestling, currently existing as the WWE, used to be a very minor niche of entertainment, and just didn't have a following. That all changed decades ago, when someone- I'm not sure any but those who were following then even remembers who- decided to make the show more exciting. How was that done? He took the persona of the bad guy. Now, audiences had someone to root against (him) and, by extension, someone to root for. To this day, the WWE uses this formula, and experiences great commercial success. Professional boxing is trying to do the same thing through building up and promoting rivalries.
American Idol burst onto the scene 11 years ago. From the beginning it was wildly popular. However, the 2011 season was weak, and the 2012 season was weaker. The show is flailing trying to maintain its power. What changed? Simon Cowell left. Simon Cowell, the acerbic Brit and primary judge, was the primary draw for the show. Why? Because he created conflict. While everyone else was heaping praise on contestants, Simon would make up some off-the-wall simile to say "that sucked." It drove conflict on the judging panel, and it drove conflict with the contestants. You could root for or against Simon, and therefore for or against specific contestants or the other judges. With him gone, there is no conflict. Randy has tried to fill his shoes by being a little more honest with the contestants, but he doesn't drive conflict. He's too conciliatory when he's telling someone they suck. So Idol is in decline.
It is this last part that I think is important. No one who was paying attention could seriously believe that Mitt Romney and the SCOAMT had any positions really in common. There was disagreement. However, Mitt Romney seemed to run from conflict. Mere disagreement will not suffice; a clear conflict, a rivalry is necessary. It gets people excited and encourages them to pick a side. Instead, people didn't see that there were sides to pick, and so people stayed home.
If Republicans want to win the White House in 2016 (assuming The Great Collapse has not already occurred), they must embrace conflict. When the Democrat says, "We need to raise revenue," the Republican needs to respond "No, we don't." Direct contradiction is the most basic form of conflict. It gets people's attention. Imagine if, during the debates, SCOAMT had said, "...and so I'm proposing to raise revenue by blah, blah..." and Romney had immediately rejoined, "Raise revenue? Don't you mean raise taxes? Please, Mr. President, be honest with the American people. And while we're being honest; we don't have a problem with revenue, we have a problem with spending."
That's a clear line. That creates Team Raise Taxes and Team Cut Spending. On item after item Romney could have chosen to engage in conflict, and therefore give the American People some one to root for and someone to root against. Had he done so, maybe we'd be talking about President Elect Romney today.