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GOP presidential hopefuls argue over winning formula for 2016

Republican 2016ers are debating how to overcome the demographic trends that helped power President Obama into the White House.
Republican presidential candidate U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks during a campaign stop at the V.F.W. Hall in Merrimack, N.H. on March 27, 2015. (Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Republican presidential candidate U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks during a campaign stop at the V.F.W. Hall in Merrimack, N.H. on March 27, 2015.

Ever since the 2012 election, pollsters, partisans, and political scientists have engaged in a great debate over the results of that contest, trying to explain President Barack Obama’s winning coalition and what Republicans might do to craft their own in 2016 and beyond.

Now as 2016 nears, the candidates themselves are putting on strategist hats and joining the fray. Over the last several weeks, Republican presidential hopefuls have offered up lessons from Mitt Romney's loss in increasingly blunt terms, explaining exactly why and how the party needs to improve with key demographics. 

RELATED: How to beat Jeb Bush

Some blame Romney’s loss on a failure to fire up the party’s white base, while others point to a desperate need to reach out to voters outside the GOP’s usual wheelhouse. More than any one single policy fight, this broad demographic argument over what the next Republican president’s winning coalition will look like defines the battle lines of the presidential primaries.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz offered up the most explicit example in his announcement speech at Liberty University last week, telling the socially conservative audience that the GOP’s goal for 2016 must be to boost turnout among right-leaning Christians.

“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.”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker boasted in South Carolina this month that he won “96% of all Republicans” in his three statewide elections, which he offered as proof he could turn out party faithful on a relentlessly conservative platform while still winning enough independents to squeak by his Democratic opponents.

"You don't have to move to the center to win over the middle."'

"You don't have to move to the center to win over the middle," Walker said.

Contrast that with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a supporter of immigration reform and Common Core education standards — positions widely loathed by GOP base voters. Bush made a splash in December at a Wall Street Journal conference by declaring his goal was to “lose the primary to win the general without violating your principles” should he decide to run. Or Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who has urged the party to reach out to young voters and minorities with new issues, and distinguished himself from Cruz last week by arguing “what is different is our approach to how we would make the party bigger.”

It’s a far cry from 2012, when Republicans largely assumed the slow economic recovery and high unemployment rate during Obama's first term would carry their nominee to victory more than any particular grand strategy. This time, the candidates are echoing a raging fight among partisan thinkers, who have deployed reams of statistics and polling to make their case for a winning post-Obama formula.

For the most part, these arguments divide into two broad camps: Those who want to reposition the Republican Party to convert Democratic-leaning voting blocs, especially Hispanics, and those who want to turbocharge their base, especially white voters, into towering new levels of support. 

The case for expansion

The case for reaching out to voters outside the GOP’s base is simple enough. The party lost the last two presidential elections badly and the voting power of its base is rapidly shrinking. 

Republican strategist Whit Ayres, who has done polling for Sen. Marco Rubio, a likely 2016 contender, has been one of the leading voices on the right for adapting to a more diverse America with new policies and rhetoric — especially on immigration. After years of briefing conservatives on his argument, he put his ideas into a new book, "2016 and Beyond: How Republicans Can Elect a President in the New America," chock full of graphs and polls on the GOP’s demographic hurdles. 

RELATED: Ted Cruz hasn't ruled out legal status for undocumented immigrants

The principal concern for Republicans like Ayres is that the country is becoming less white. As he often tells conservative audiences, Ronald Reagan won 56% of whites in his blowout victory over President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Mitt Romney did even better in 2012, winning 59% only to get blown out by President Obama. The difference is that the voters who showed up in 1980 were about 88% white. In 2012, they were 72% white, according to exit polls, and Obama dominated the non-white vote with 93% support among black voters, 71% among Latinos, and 73% among Asians.

“What it means is that the past formula for GOP elections will not work,” Ayres told msnbc from his office in Alexandria.

"What it means is that the past formula for GOP elections will not work."'

He estimates Republicans need to get into the 40s with Latino voters, a number George W. Bush roughly hit in 2004, or count on their nominee hitting stratospheric levels of white support in 2016 on par with Reagan’s benchmark-setting 64% in 1984. 

Many of Bush’s reported advisers are on record making similar arguments. Pollster Neil Newhouse, who worked on Romney’s 2012 campaign, warned Republicans after the 2014 midterms that the results “should convince no one that we’ve fixed our basic shortfalls with key electoral groups, including minorities and younger voters.” Mike Murphy, a longtime Bush strategist, warned on Meet the Press of an “existential crisis” for the GOP after the 2012 election and said Republicans “are competing in a America that demographically no longer exists." 

The policy arena where this argument has played out is primarily immigration. Ayres has urged Republicans to pass immigration reform, which hopefully would remove a key barrier to courting Latino voters. Rubio co-sponsored a bipartisan immigration bill in the Senate, but has since backed away in favor of a piecemeal approach that starts with border security. Bush is still working out his full immigration position, but has made clear that he intends to push the party hard to get behind a solution that includes a path to legal status.  

There are other fights that touch on these demographic arguments too, however. Paul has made the case that the GOP needs to win back young voters by taking a libertarian stance on issues like NSA spying and eat into Democratic margins with minority voters by decrying racial profiling and promising criminal justice reform. Both Murphy and Bush’s expected campaign manager David Kochel have urged the party to accept marriage equality if they want young voters, who lean hard left on gay rights. None of the likely GOP candidates have taken them up on that idea yet and this week's rush among 2016 candidates to defend Indiana's religious-liberty law from accusations that it legalizes discrimination against gays suggests it's still a bridge too far. 

It’s an open question whether any of these approaches can actually achieve their intended goals, but what’s clear is that some campaigns are losing more sleep worrying about young and non-white voters than others.

The case for the base

On the other end of the spectrum are the GOP candidates whose campaigns seek to boost already favorable margins with their core supporters even higher.

This approach is often expressed more by candidates’ general rhetorical style than by their actual differences with other Republicans on policy -- particularly given that it’s too early to determine their stance on many key issues. In speeches and interviews, the base-focused contenders are more comfortable antagonizing Democratic-leaning voting blocs in order to stand out with their own supporters. 

Walker, the leading candidate at the moment taking the base-energizing approach, is one prominent example. As The New York Times noted this week, he’s far more willing than Bush to score applause lines from conservative audiences by mocking targets like food stamp recipients. All GOP candidates favor voter ID laws,  but Walker has made Wisconsin’s voter ID law a highlight of his speeches and used it in fundraising e-mails while Paul has warned Republicans to downplay the issue for fear of alienating black voters. Walker recently renounced his past support for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, abandoning any chance of courting Latino voters with promises of immigration reform.

RELATED: Scott Walker fundraises off voter ID victory

On social issues, prospective candidates like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee have gone out of their way to side with culture warriors who have little obvious appeal outside their base. Jindal methodically allied himself with "Duck Dynasty’s" Phil Robertson after the reality star made a series of comments deriding gays, suggesting African Americans were happier under Jim Crow, and blaming World War II on Japanese Shintoism. Huckabee will make a show of his support for Ted Nugent, the shock rocker who called Obama a “subhuman mongrel," one day and then bash rapper Jay-Z as a “pimp” and criticize his superstar wife, Beyonce, for suggestive dance moves on the next.

There’s a clear demographic imperative underlying these campaigns as well. Many conservative commentators and activists have rallied around a theory of the 2012 election that blamed Romney's loss on a failure to fire up white voters and blue-collar white voters, largely because of his elitist image. A key influence on this group is Real Clear Politics columnist Sean Trende, who crunched the numbers and estimated about 5 million “missing” white voters who probably would have voted Republican were projected to show up at the polls but stayed home instead.

"Getting to 60% of the white vote outside of the Deep South is very challenging .... It can be done, but counting on it in order to win is like drawing an inside straight."'

To win in 2016 without improving their standing among nonwhites, Republicans would have to not only get these missing whites voters to turn out, but expand their winning margin and probably hope minority voters turn out at substantially lower rates.

Some Republican strategists on both the “expansion” and “base” side of the argument alike have argued a more populist economic appeal could help bring back blue-collar whites. But there’s disagreement over just what policies fit the bill. Some on the “expansion” side, including Bush adviser Murphy, argue the party needs to minimize social issues to court more moderate middle class white voters in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Some on the “base” side, like Rick Santorum, see an opportunity to court blue collar whites by turning against immigration even harder. Social conservatives see a chance to make gains through more culture war skirmishes. 

Ayres is mostly unimpressed with the "missing whites" thesis. The nonwhite share has steadily declined by roughly 2 percentage points between each presidential election. If the trend holds, that means the next GOP nominee will have to outperform Romney with whites just to duplicate his losing map.

“Getting to 60% of the white vote outside of the Deep South is very challenging — there are a lot of white liberals out there,” he said. “It can be done, but counting on it in order to win is like drawing an inside straight.”

But it's not just conservative Republicans bringing up the possibility of a Republican riding even higher white margins to victory – at least for one more election. John Judis, whose 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority predicted the Obama coalition, sounded the alarm after the 2014 midterms that Democrats may be in danger of losing votes from college-educated whites. Some Democrats are concerned their plummeting levels of support among white men may have further to go before hitting bottom.

“If there’s one thing that worries me it would probably be younger white males, who I think would be really susceptible to a Rand Paul,” one Democratic strategist told msnbc. “I could see them flipping back and forth.”

The flipside to these concerns is that Hillary Clinton may be more popular with white voters than the current presidentThe former secretary of state made this argument herself during her 2008 primary battle against Obama, drawing jeers from the left for pointing to her ability to appeal to “hard-working Americans, white Americans” in a general election. If Clinton were to match Obama’s numbers with whites, let alone improve by just a percentage point or two, Republicans would need to make drastic gains with nonwhites to compete. 

“The handwriting is on the wall for Republicans,” Brookings demographer Bill Frey told msnbc. “They have to eke into young people and eke into minorities one way or another.”