Thanks for the responses. I've played the game a few more times, and while I'm improving, the basic problem remains: I lag behind in everything. Last in military, research, production, you name it. I can't keep up with the other civs, and in the end I'm always simply overwhelmed by larger fleets because they're ahead in tech and logistics.
@Elm84, that sounds like a great idea, but I've never seen the option to build the Manufacturing Capital or any of the other buildings you mention. I usually play as the Terran Resistance, so maybe I need to try playing as another civ to get those buildings built early.
@Franco fx, I think that's the approach I'll have to take - I had the same thought, because as you say it would give me more time for the civ to mature and for me to get better at the game.
@gyan42, great tips. I've always played with the "ready made" civs and ships, so maybe the key is learning to tinker and make an original ships and custom race. After reading your post I made sure I was mining asteroids and I traded a lot of tech. This got me farther, but I was still easily overwhelmed by sheer numbers in the end.
If I can figure out how to get ahead in research and at least keep up in production, I might have a chance, but as I'm still playing on Easy, I feel I'm missing some very basic things about the game. Next game I'll try to incorporate mercenaries - I was tempted last game but the other civs had beat me to the best ones.