The Republican Party finds itself in an odd place heading into the 2016 presidential election. They’ve made tremendous gains at the state level under President Obama, hold a near-unbreakable majority in the House, and now control the Senate as well.
But they’ve come up short by a significant margin in the last two presidential elections, where turnout is higher and the electorate is more diverse, and have plenty going against them in the next one.
Presidential elections are unpredictable and it often appears that one party can't lose — until it does. Democrats bounced back from three demoralizing blowout losses to win in 1992 against an incumbent, President George H.W. Bush, who seemed unbeatable earlier in his presidency. Republicans could do the same in 2016.
So what does the GOP have to do to finally crack the White House? These are some broad theories on how they win:
Cut Into the Democratic Base
The guiding principle behind a number of Republican candidates is that the party can only win when it reverses its losing margins with Democratic-leaning groups. That means winning converts among the most important planks of President Obama’s winning coalition – young voters, minorities, and single women.
Two of the GOP candidates most prominently aligned with this “big tent” approach are Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush both of whom, not coincidentally, are from the very diverse swing state of Florida. The rest of the “establishment” side of the GOP field, including Ohio Governor John Kasich, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Senator Lindsey Graham fit into this camp as well.
In particular, candidates in this category see winning over Latino voters as a critical step towards victory. Just 27 percent went for Romney in 2012 and “big tent” proponents, most prominently Rubio’s pollster Whit Ayres, believe that share needs to get to 40 percent or higher to win the White House.
Rubio, whose parents are Cuban immigrants and who regularly speaks to the press in Spanish, sought to address the issue by co-authoring an immigration reform bill that would put undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship, but walked it back after a conservative revolt.
Bush, who also speaks fluent Spanish and is married to a Mexican immigrant, is a longtime immigration reform supporter, but draws the line at legal status rather than citizenship. A leaked presentation the Bush campaign gave to donors this week noted that he was the most popular Republican with Latino voters in a Quinnipiac survey of general election match-ups.
The Latino vote isn’t the only area where GOP candidate see growth potential. Rubio is especially focused on peeling young voters from Democrats, who won 60 percent of the under-30 set in 2012. On any given day you’ll hear him talk about his student loan debt, his favorite rap song, and even that he listens to EDM (popular among young voters). Rand Paul, whose father Ron Paul was popular with college students, has aggressively tried to pull in young voters by talking about issues like high-tech surveillance. He’s also made a strong pitch to black voters by emphasizing racial disparities in the justice system.
Supercharge the GOP Base
The most prominent alternative to the “big tent” theory, which assumes that the GOP’s core voting bloc is too small to win on its own, is the “boost the base” theory.
Republicans have kept competitive with Democrats by hitting higher and higher margins with white voters – Romney’s 59 percent was an improvement on George W. Bush’s 58 percent in 2004, but not enough to overcome Obama’s margins with non-white voters.
It’s possible, “boost the base” proponents argue, that Romney’s number wasn’t a ceiling but the start of a trend and that Republican candidates should focus on increasing turnout and margins with conservative voting groups higher and higher – even if it means antagonizing the Obama coalition further. Pushing the GOP share of the white vote a couple of percentage points higher might be enough to win, especially if Clinton can’t replicate Obama’s incredible turnout operation.
Candidates like Ted Cruz, who has talked about boosting turnout among born-again Christians, fit into this theory as do others like Bobby Jindal and Mike Huckabee whose positions and rhetoric are overwhelmingly aimed at firing up social conservatives. Donald Trump, who is loathed by Latino voters and loved by working-class white conservatives, belongs into this category to some degree as well. So did Scott Walker before he dropped out.
The framework is especially popular in conservative circles because it doesn’t require painful concessions on divisive issues within the party. Many conservatives in this camp believe Latino voters are unlikely to ever join the GOP in large numbers, so the party should oppose any kind of immigration reform that might depress turnout among the base.
There’s a geographic divide between the “big tent” and “boost the base” on the electoral map as well. Winning more Latino voters is more likely to put states like Florida and Colorado back into the red. Raising margins with white voters is more likely to put rust belt states like Ohio, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin into play.
The line between the two camps isn’t perfect. Dr. Ben Carson, for example, might fit into the “big tent” camp in a unique way. His supporters boast that Carson’s deep roots in the African American community will enable him to win by beating Romney’s dismal performance with black voters (six percent voted Republican in 2012). On the other hand, his message and platform is overwhelmingly tailored to hardcore conservatives, which fits the “boost the base” theory. Every candidate will likely try to achieve some combination of better base performance and better margins with weaker groups, even if their emphasis is different.
Or None of the Above
The dirty secret of elections is that candidates can run a perfect campaign with a prefect strategy, but the results are frequently determined by events outside their control. In the end, the best chance Republicans might have at winning is simply getting lucky.
One possibility is that Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders emerges weakened from the primaries – perhaps Clinton’s email woes worsen or Sanders proves too extreme for general election voters. Early polls have little predictive value, but already some surveys have shown Clinton trailing Republican candidates in hypothetical match-ups – even outsiders like Trump and Carson. Some political science models, like Emory professor Alan Abramowitz’s “Time for Change” formula, assume that any party trying for a third term in the White House faces significant built-in challenges.
Another possibility is that some external event derails the Democratic nominee. Perhaps the Federal Reserve raises interest rates too quickly and an unexpected economic slowdown drags Democrats down. A foreign policy disaster could spark a backlash against President Obama, whose approval ratings should have a major impact on whether Democrats hold the White House.
The Democratic nominee may start with certain advantages, but they’re not nearly powerful enough to counter a toxic national environment. Take 2008, where the financial crisis and President George W. Bush’s deep unpopularity helped Obama win an otherwise red state like Indiana and sent Democrats to Congress in GOP-leaning districts they had no business winning.
So Democrats – don’t get cocky. Republicans – don’t despair. There’s still a strong possibility that Republicans wake up on November 9th with one of their own headed to the White House.