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, R-Ky., who said last week that he wants his message to appeal to voters “whether you’re white or black, rich or poor.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, disagrees, as became clear – if it wasn’t already – when he announced his candidacy last month.
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“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 comes with a fatal flaw: 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.
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. But particularly with his position on immigration, he risks alienating minority voters, just as Mitt Romney did in 2012.
In 2016, GOP pollster Whit Ayres estimates, the nonwhite portion of the electorate will be even larger – meaning a Republican who wins only 17 percent of the nonwhite vote would need to win 65 percent of the white vote, a virtually unreachable target.
And that brings us to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who announced his presidential candidacy 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. But he departed from GOP orthodoxy on immigration reform by supporting the bipartisan bill that passed the Senate in 2013.
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?
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.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.