PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (AP) – Ted Cruz has mapped out a path to the White House that all but ignores the explosion of minority voters in America.
The Texas senator's general election strategy depends almost wholly upon maximizing turnout among millions of conservative white voters — mostly evangelical Christians and the white working class — who didn't participate in the last presidential contest.
At the same time, Cruz's team is banking on a sharp decline in black and Hispanic support for the 2016 Democratic nominee, whoever it is, returning to voter trends before Barack Obama shook up the electorate as the nation's first black president and won an overwhelming share of support from non-white voters.
It is a strategy that defies the conventional wisdom in the GOP that says the party can win the White House again only if it appeals to political moderates and non-white voters who are becoming a greater share of the voting-age population as each day passes.
"I'm an outlier," said longtime Cruz aide Jason Johnson, the chief architect of the Cruz playbook, which he concedes is not in line with modern-day Republican thinking.
Yet with overwhelming confidence born from a year of studying voter trends, Johnson insists the first-term Texas senator can win the general election by motivating a coalition of his party's most reliable supporters.
"It is absolutely the case that in 2012, there were a little over 2 million fewer white non-Hispanics that voted compared to 2008," Johnson said this week in an interview with The Associated Press. "They sat it out."
The strategy will not be tested unless Cruz survives the long road ahead in his party's hotly contested nomination process to represent the GOP in November's general election. Still, general election viability has emerged as a major theme in the days leading up to New Hampshire's Feb. 9 primary among the leading Republican candidates.
Many Washington Republicans warn that Cruz is simply too conservative to appeal to the wide swath of voters that typically decide general elections.
"They are just wrong about this," said Republican operative Matthew Dowd, who served as the chief political strategist for George W. Bush. "It is about both motivation and persuasion. You can't motivate your base and at same time turn off moderates and independents."
But Cruz this week repeatedly declared that his team assembled a coalition in Iowa that would translate into general election success.
"We saw conservatives and evangelicals and libertarians and Reagan Democrats all coming together," he said during a town hall-style meeting at a Portsmouth Toyota dealership. "If we're going to win, if we're going to win the nomination and we're going to win the general election, we've got to bring that coalition together."
"That's what it's going to take to win the general election," he said.
The Cruz strategy is born by necessity.
While his team notes he won 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 2012 Senate election in Texas, and Cruz has the potential to become the nation's first Hispanic president, hardline conservative rhetoric on illegal immigration has defined his short political career. He has promoted endorsements from far-right conservatives such as Iowa Rep. Steve King, Cruz's national campaign co-chairman who has compared immigrants in the country illegally to drug mules and livestock.
GOP leaders commissioned an exhaustive report after the 2012 elections calling for candidates to adopt more welcoming tones on immigration. But a hardline stance on immigration remains popular among white voters across America who make up the majority — albeit a shrinking majority — of the voting-age population and tend to vote Republican.
Trump's sustained popularity is based in part on such anti-immigrant rhetoric. And more than 60 percent of Republicans polled by CNN last summer said the U.S. government should focus on stopping the flow of immigrants in the country illegally and deporting those already here. About 30 percent of Democrats said the same.
Johnson, Cruz's top strategist, believes that Cruz can win in November even if he earns only 30 percent of the Hispanic vote nationally — a modest increase from Mitt Romney's 27 percent four years ago. And among black voters, Johnson envisions Cruz winning over roughly 10 percent, which is in line with the GOP's performance in 2000 and 2004.
Cruz has no plans to back off his hardline stance on immigration. His team has determined there is no evidence that immigration policy alone is a major factor in winning over Hispanic voters.
"It's not a panacea," Johnson said of immigration reform, citing internal and public polling. "Even if we had to do better than 30 percent, that wouldn't do it."
Yet the country's demographic shifts have prompted some Republicans to reach the opposite conclusion and work harder to appeal to non-white voters, who by 2052 will make up a majority of the eligible voting-age population, according to a study by conducted last year by Washington think tanks representing both parties.
GOP leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and recently departed presidential candidate Rand Paul have spoken extensively about poverty alleviation and criminal justice reform — issues that particularly resonate among black and Hispanic voters.
The share of all voters nationwide who are white has dropped consistently since 1996, according to census data. Even 2004, a year in which the total number of white voters increased by more than 10 million, failed to reverse that trend.
Yet Cruz's team is correct to note that millions of white voters sat out the 2012 elections. Census voting data shows about 2 million fewer white voters cast ballots in 2012 than 2008 — the only time since 1996 that the total number of votes cast by a racial group has decreased from one presidential election to the next.
Some Republican strategists, including Dowd, suggest the missing voters are concentrated in states that aren't likely to be contested in the general election. They argue that even if Cruz gets them to vote, they won't improve his November prospects.
Cruz's team won't ignore minority voters altogether. The campaign has an African-American outreach director, and Cruz this week promised to campaign in Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods at some point. His major challenge is to drive white turnout while not completely alienating minorities.
"You can't just go out and throw red meat on the table just because you know it will help turnout on one side of the equation," he said. "We're either right or wrong."