As the number of declared candidates in the presidential campaign grows, two competing theories have emerged among Republicans as to how one of their candidates can win the GOP nomination and, ultimately, the White House.
One is to make the conservative tent bigger — to try to broaden the party's appeal to young people, minority voters and others who haven't voted Republican in recent years. The other course is to make the tent smaller but more fervent — to purify the party, make its message more rigorous, and thus (in theory) mobilize an army of right-wing voters who have been sitting on their hands.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is a tent-expander. He says the GOP needs to "reach out to people in every walk of life" and even uses the old-fashioned word "bipartisan" as a compliment. That's also the view, in a different vein, of Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who said last week that he wants his message — "libertarian-ish," as he now calls it — to appeal to voters "whether you're white or black, rich or poor."
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas disagrees, as became clear—if it wasn't already— when he announced his candidacy last month.
"Today, roughly half of born-again Christians aren't voting — they're staying home," Cruz said. "Imagine, instead, millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values."
The Cruz strategy — let's call it the "revival tent" theory — comes with a fatal flaw: It can't work. It might enable its champion to win the campaign's first round, the Iowa caucuses in February, because religious conservatives are a dominant force in that state's GOP. It might even give Cruz a chance at winning the nomination — if every other candidate falters. But it's no way to win the White House. Republican strategists, pollsters and anyone who looks hard at the numbers knows that there simply aren't enough untapped conservative voters out there to build a national majority.
"It comes down to a math problem," David Winston, a pollster who advised Newt Gingrich in 2012, told me. "He's talking about creating an electorate that has never existed before."
Another leading candidate, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, is following a slightly more nuanced version of the small-tent strategy. Walker has cast himself as a pugnacious conservative, based on his battles with his state's public employee unions. He's won support from white working-class voters — people once known as Reagan Democrats — by cutting taxes and state spending, especially on education. And he recently toughened his stance on immigration, saying he no longer supports a path to citizenship for people in the country illegally.
But, particularly with his position on immigration, he risks alienating minority voters, just as Mitt Romney did in 2012.
Romney won 59% of the white vote in 2012; that's more than Ronald Reagan won in 1980. But he won only 17% of nonwhite votes, far fewer than he needed to amass a popular vote majority.
In 2016, GOP pollster Whit Ayers estimates, the nonwhite portion of the electorate will be even larger — meaning a Republican who wins only 17% of the nonwhite vote would need to win 65% of the white vote, a virtually unreachable target.
And that brings us to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who plans to announce his presidential candidacy on Monday. He's a small-tent guy in some ways, but a big-tent guy in others. Thoroughly conservative on economic and foreign policy issues, Rubio won his Senate seat in 2010 as a conservative insurgent in the first wave of "tea party" candidates. But he departed from GOP orthodoxy on immigration reform by supporting the bipartisan bill that passed the Senate in 2013.
Earlier this year, Rubio announced a new position: He still supports a path to legalization and says he remains open to the idea of a path toward citizenship. "But what I've learned is you can't even have a conversation about that until people believe and know — not just believe but it's proven to them — that future illegal immigration will be controlled," he told a conservative group in January.
Will Rubio's relatively liberal stance on immigration, plus his heritage as a Cuban American, be enough to attract support from Latinos and other minorities? Here's the other side of that coin: Will his support of a pathway to citizenship turn off the GOP primary electorate, which is almost all white?
"The primary electorate is about one-third moderate, one-third somewhat conservative, and one-third very conservative," Winston said. "Generally, the nominee is the person who wins the 'somewhat conservatives' plus some of the others."
It's far too early to make predictions; some of these candidates are still figuring out their positions. But in my view, Paul and Cruz will have trouble winning much support beyond the core conservative and libertarian backers they already have. The candidates who show the most promise of winning support from more than one faction are the ones to watch: Bush, Walker and Rubio.