Texas senator Ted Cruz is peddling a familiar myth in his quest to become the Republican Party’s presidential nominee: If only conservatives turn out in greater numbers, they can take back the presidency from the Democrats this year.
It is one of those lies the party tells itself; not too dissimilar from the notion that it loses presidential elections when it nominates a Republican who isn’t right-wing enough.
Cruz is prone to making both those arguments and it plays well with his supporters, many of whom are evangelical Christians.
Turning out evangelicals
“In the last presidential race a majority of evangelical Christians didn’t vote,” Cruz told sympathizers in Iowa this week, the first voting state in what looks to be a months-long nominating contest.
I believe the key to winning in 2016 is very simple: we have to bring back the millions of evangelical voters who stayed home. We have to awaken and energize the body of Christ.
“It will take hard work, deft strategy, triangulation and compromise to rob Hillary Clinton of Barack Obama’s voters,” argues the former’s Noah Rothman.
Amy Walter has written for The Cook Political Report that there is no evidence Republicans lost the 2012 election because conservatives stayed home.
Moreover, she argues, politics and physics follow similar rules: “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
The very thing that will motivate the so-called “missing” evangelical and conservative voters to the polls will also bring out those loyal to Democrats, erasing any advantage a fired-up base will bring Cruz.
In 2004, evangelicals made up 23 percent of the electorate. 78 percent supported George W. Bush.
In 2012, evangelicals made up an even larger share of voters: 26 percent. Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, won the group’s support with an equal 78 percent.
“This was the highest share of the vote in modern political history for evangelicals,” wrote Ralph Reed, a leader of the religious wing of the party, right after the election.
But Romney underperformed with younger voters and minorities and that in the end made the difference for Obama.
Republicans turned out their base, but so did the Democrats — and they did better.
Registering black voters in Florida and Hispanics in Ohio proved crucial to Obama’s wins in these two large presidential swing states.
Obama also took a 15-point lead over Romney among self-declared moderate voters nationwide.
Yes, some 6.5 million white voters may have stayed home by Walter’s calculation. But most lived in noncompetitive states that Romney would have won with or without them.
Moreover, around eight million eligible African Americans and fourteen million Latinos also “stayed home” in 2012.
This, Walter believes, suggests a bigger problem with the “conservative base turnout theory.” It assumes a campaign in a vacuum.
It is structurally possible for a Republican to win by getting a bigger share of the conservative, evangelical white vote. But only if millions of young and minority voters (who are even more likely now to support a Democrat than they were in 2012) stay home.
That is unlikely.
For Cruz — or a candidate like him — to “motivate” the hard-right base, he would need to emphasize the very sort of cultural and social issues that galvanize racial minorities and the young: abortion, gay rights, immigration.
Such issues don’t play well anymore with middle-class voters in swing states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia either. And — as this website keeps arguing — they are the ones will likely decide the outcome of the election in November.
“A campaign is a balancing act,” Walter concludes. “Lean too far one way and you fall off.”
Instead, the winning campaign is the one that can motivate and energize its base without alienating that 41 percent of Americans who describe themselves as “moderate” or encouraging the other side to turn out in even bigger numbers.
Cruz is not going to do that.