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National Politics|By Amy Walter, November 30, 2015

Ted Cruz has the same plan to win the GOP nomination as he does to win the general election: appeal to, motivate and turn-out evangelical and disaffected and disgruntled conservative voters. While running to the right in a primary is a tried-and-true strategy, the Cruz campaign is taking that strategy into the general election as well. Cruz eschews the tradition of moving to the middle in the general election, arguing that the key to winning in 2016 is not in wooing moderates but in getting conservatives to vote. Given the Democrats’ dominance in voter mobilization in 2012 (black turnout exceeded white turnout for the first time) and the lack of palpable excitement for Romney among many conservatives, Cruz’s general election strategy looks semi-plausible. However, 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. Moreover, there’s simply no evidence that the last election was lost because conservatives stayed home.

The core of the Cruz campaign theory is that the fight for the “moderate middle” is a wasted exercise. Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler argues that a shrinking - if non-existent - middle makes motivation of your base more important than persuasion of swing voters. For evidence he points to the fact that Romney won independent voters but lost the election by 5 million votes. However, using the term "independent" as a stand-in for "swing voter" is misleading. In fact, there's evidence to suggest that many voters who called themselves "independent" in 2012, were really more GOP leaning in their voting behavior. Instead, the more accurate representation of a swing voter is someone who defines themselves as "moderate." On that score, Obama beat Romney by 15 points. As my colleague Charlie Cook wrote in the wake of the 2012 election: “[W]hile Romney won among the 29 percent of voters who identify themselves as independents by 5 points, 50 to 45 percent, he lost among the much larger group, the 41 percent who self-describe as moderates, by 15 points, 56 to 41 percent. Though congressional Republicans carried the independent vote by 7 points, they lost the moderate vote by 16 points. While conservatives certainly have bragging rights over liberals in terms of self-identification—a 10-point edge—the fact that Republicans do so badly among the largest group, moderates, is more important.”

The Cruz camp also makes the point that evangelicals have been disengaged from the last two elections. Getting them out to vote, they argue, will be the game-changer in 2016.

"The evangelical vote," Cruz campaign’s Tyler tells me, "is the largest unfished pond of voters - it's a frickin' ocean." Tyler estimates that something like 30 million evangelicals are ready and willing to support someone like Cruz but will remain on the sidelines if the more 'establishment' candidate gets the nomination.

It’s hard to find any data to support this theory. First, identifying evangelical voters is not as easy as identifying other characteristics of voters like age, sex or race. There’s no way to roll into a district and know which voters there are evangelical. However, the Cruz campaign and others argue that finding these voters isn't all that hard since we know where they are most Sunday mornings. What we know empirically about evangelical voters is from polling and, more specifically, from exit polls. And, on that front, there’s no evidence of a “slump” in 2012.

In 2004, evangelical voters made up 23 percent of the electorate and George W. Bush carried that group with 78 percent. In 2012, evangelical voters made up an even larger share of the electorate - 26 percent – and Romney won this group with an equal 78 percent of the vote.

Even Ralph Reed, a leader of the evangelical wing of the party, argued right after the 2012 election that evangelical turnout was at an all-time high in 2012. "A national post-election survey commissioned by the Faith and Freedom Coalition last night,” Reed wrote in a November 7, 2012 memo, “found that the evangelical vote increased in 2012 to a record 27% of the electorate and that white evangelicals voted roughly 78% for Mitt Romney to 21% for Barack Obama. This was the highest share of the vote in modern political history for evangelicals. Evangelicals turned out in record numbers and voted as heavily for Mitt Romney yesterday as they did for George W. Bush in 2004,” Reed observed. “That is an astonishing outcome that few would have predicted even a few months ago. But Romney underperformed with younger voters and minorities and that in the end made the difference for Obama.”

Even if you argue that Reed had a vested interest in these findings (he was helping to turn out votes for Romney after all), it is hard to find any hard data out there showing that evangelical voters sat on their hands in 2012.

Then, there's the theory, promoted by folks like Real Clear Politics' Sean Trende, that there were plenty of GOP votes left on the table in 2012. Trende argues that there were 6.5 million 'missing' white voters in 2012 - voters who theoretically would have supported a GOP candidate had they turned out to vote. Our own resident numbers guru, David Wasserman, found that 77 percent of white eligible voters with college degrees voted in 2012, while only 56 percent of whites without a college degree turned out. Non-college whites broke decisively for Romney in 2012. Obama took just 28 percent of non-college married white men and 31 percent of non-college white women.

Of course, the most important variable that's not discussed is where these 'missing voters' lived. Turn-out dropped between 2008 and 2012. But, it dropped much less in swing states where the election was decided. For example, turnout dropped 2.4 percent in Nevada, but dropped more than 9 percent in neighboring New Mexico. New Hampshire’s turnout dropped 1.5 percent, but next door neighbor Maine dropped almost 5 points. In fact, the 20 states with the highest turnout in 2012 included every competitive swing state: WI (2), CO (3), NH (4), IA (5), VA (7), NC (11), OH (12), FL (16). Meanwhile, the states with the lowest turnout were not only the least competitive, but they also are states with overwhelmingly white populations like West Virginia (50), Oklahoma (49) and Arkansas (47).

Recently, I sat down with a Republican strategist who was tasked with delving into this data post 2012. This strategist was not a skeptic and tells me he was initially open to the depressed base theory. “Believe me,” he told me, “I was hoping we'd find that the problem was we didn't turn out our base. That would be a lot easier to solve.”

Instead, he said, as he pulled out a huge binder full of charts and graphs and power-point slides, they found what those on the Democratic side of the aisle had been boasting about since Election Day: Democrats were able to register new voters and to get young people and minorities to vote. Republicans turned out their votes, but Democrats did even better. This strategist credits Obama victories in Ohio, Virginia, Nevada and Iowa to the campaign’s significant investment in registering new, young voters. Getting African-Americans registered in Florida and Latinos in Ohio was critical to Obama wins there. Most important, he says, their exhaustive analysis finds no evidence of GOP drop off in key battleground states.

However, both Trende and Wasserman acknowledge the shortcomings of the 'white turnout' theory. Wasserman points out that we can't assume that these drop-off downscale voters were evangelical. Also, we can’t assume they were all married. Obama did very well among non-college single white women in 2012. Moreover, their lack of participation was likely less about Romney and more about their lack of trust in the system itself. In other words, their disaffection with politics in general was a more potent predictor than their alienation from the 'moderate' Romney. Plus, if you look at the wider universe of potential voters "left on the table", Wasserman also found that 8 million eligible African-Americans and 14 million Latinos also "stayed home" in 2012. Trende also acknowledged that "while this [missing white vote] was the most salient demographic change, it was probably not, standing alone, enough to swing the election to Obama. After all, he won the election by almost exactly 5 million votes. If we assume there were 6.5 million “missing” white voters, that means that Romney would have had to win almost 90 percent of their votes to win the election.” That’s just downright impossible.

Perhaps the best non-partisan analyst of demography and electoral outcomes, National Journal's Ron Brownstein, made the strongest case against the 'missing white voter" theory.

In an exhaustive and incredibly researched article written in 2013, Brownstein argues that, “[f]or Re­pub­lic­ans to in­crease the white share of the elect­or­ate in 2016 or bey­ond would re­quire them to re­verse the vir­tu­ally un­in­ter­rup­ted tra­ject­ory of the past three dec­ades. Ac­cord­ing to the NJ exit poll ana­lys­is, the white share of the total vote has de­clined in every elec­tion since 1980, ex­cept in 1992, when it ticked up to 88 per­cent (from 85 per­cent in 1988) amid the in­terest in Perot’s quirky third-party bid. Oth­er­wise, this de­cline has per­sisted through years of both high and low over­all turnout. Even in 2004, when George W. Bush’s state-of-the-art mi­cro-tar­get­ing and turnout op­er­a­tion al­lowed Re­pub­lic­ans to equal Demo­crats as a share of the total vote for the only time in the his­tory of polling, whites’ share dropped 4 per­cent­age points from 2000.”

But, the biggest problem with the “conservative base turn-out theory” is that it assumes a campaign in a vacuum. Is it structurally possible for a Republican to win a national election getting a bigger share of white, evangelical and conservative voters? Yes, but only if the Democratic coalition doesn’t turn out. However, in order for Cruz to ‘motivate’ his base, he’s going to have to focus on the cultural and social issues that would in turn get younger and minority voters fired up: immigration, gay marriage, and abortion. Plus, these social and cultural issues would also push an even bigger share of the “moderate” vote to Hillary Clinton.

This isn’t 2004. The cultural wars benefit Democrats this time around. Back then, the anti-gay marriage ballot initiative in Ohio was credited with pulling out conservative leaning voters. Now imagine running on an anti-gay marriage platform in 2016. It may turn out evangelicals, but it would also alienate suburban white women and fire up young millennials to vote. Harsh rhetoric on immigration not only alienates Latino voters from the GOP, but it also pushes away younger voters from the GOP.

A campaign is a balancing act. 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 may be able to get one side of this equation right, but it’s hard to see him get all the numbers to add up.