Is Ted Cruz Today’s Not-Trump or A Legitimate Contender?

It's now the most hated man in the Senate's turn in the sun. Can it last?


Nomiki Konst, a self-described “political analyst and communications strategist regularly appearing on national media outlets discussing politics” of whom I had never previously heard, declares in a Hill op-ed that “Ted Cruz isn’t just surging — he’s winning.” Her core argument:

With primaries a bit less than 50 days out, at this point, previously skeptical pundits have assumed not only that Trump is the front-runner in the GOP primary, but that there is no real contest. But while cable news is capitalizing off of kabuki theater, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has been backstage outplaying the entire GOP field.

In the modern ratings-based media world we live in, where candidates get attention off fundraising numbers and sensationalism, we often miss the politics brewing below the surface. Even seasoned politicos get distracted by earned media and national polls; but just as former House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) declared decades ago, the tried and tested formula of winning a presidential primary remains the same: It’s all local.

Which is why, at this point in the campaign, we should prioritize “likely GOP voter” polls in early primary states over national and “total registered GOP voters” polls — like the Monmouth University poll out last week taken of Iowa GOP voters who have voted in previous caucuses, which shows Cruz winning at 24 percent (Trump is at 19 percent). Or, Sunday’s Des Moines Register poll of likely Republican caucus-goers, which has Cruz at 31 percent and Trump 10 percentage points behind.

Recent general GOP polls (like this one and this one), where Trump is winning, factor in new Republican voters — a key portion of his support, but also those less likely to engage in the arduous Iowa caucus voting. And if those voters don’t turn out, suddenly Trump drops below Cruz (in Iowa and South Carolina) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (in New Hampshire) in early primary states, making him dead on arrival to that “brokered convention” the media are fantasizing about.

All the focused polls in early primary states this week show Cruz’s momentum growing, a reflection of his formulaic long-term strategy centered on fundraising, investment in ground game across the country, key endorsements and messaging to a coalition of conservative voters.

It’s certainly true that national polls are largely irrelevant in nomination contests driven by state-level primaries and that the ground game matters. More problematically, there is precious little rigorous polling of the early primary states until we get very close to the voting.

Thus far, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina have faded away as the not-Trumps of the moment. But they were essentially alternate-Trumps, outsiders competing for the same space. Cruz is at least a plausible presidential nominee based on resume.

I’m nonetheless quite skeptical of Cruz emerging as the nominee. He probably has the highest IQ of any candidate on either side of the aisle.  He’s also, alas, almost certainly the least likable.  (Hillary Clinton, the seemingly inevitable Democratic nominee, is the leading competitor in both categories.) Nor is there any obvious rationale for his winning. He’s much less experienced at governing than John Kasich, Chris Christie, or Jeb Bush but isn’t plausibly an outsider given that he’s not only a sitting Senator but he’s spent most of his working life drawing a government paycheck. Did I mention that he is unlikable?

Konst’s rationale for why Cruz has not only emerged but is likely to stick:

You may wonder why Cruz surged this week? A predictable phenomenon in GOP primaries is occurring: As the flavors of the month rise and fall, the candidates focused on the long game benefit. Last week, Cruz picked up evangelical support from rival candidate Ben Carson, who dropped from 32 percent to 13 percent in the past six weeks in Iowa alone. And with 65 percent of South Carolina GOP primary voters identifying as evangelical or born-again, Cruz will most likely jump ahead a couple more points in the next few weeks.

Cruz’s long-term campaign strategy has focused on a coalition of conservatives, over half of the Republican primary voters: Tea Partyers, evangelical whites and far-right conservatives. His message is been part pastor-like and part renegade-like, challenging the GOP and the establishment to send a true conservative to the White House to “take on the Washington cartel.” Cruz often reminds voters that he is the only GOP candidate with a record of taking on Washington — as he recently recalled what his strategist told him about his candidacy, “‘America hates Washington. Washington hates you. That ain’t bad.'”

But perhaps the most intriguing factor contributing to Cruz’s success is Trump’s overt extremism. Suddenly, Cruz — whom I admittedly once called “a flashback to Medieval Times” on “Lou Dobbs Tonight” — is the palatable conservative alternative for likely GOP voters — and even the GOP establishment. When asked about Cruz’s toxic relationship with his colleagues, a high-ranking GOP consultant told me that “the GOP establishment may hate Ted Cruz, but they fear Donald Trump.”

While “less crazy than Donald Trump” may well be a selling point, it’s not likely sustainable. If the Trump bubble bursts, then Trump quickly stops being the point of comparison.

Further, lots of “true conservatives” have won Iowa in recent cycles. They almost always fade away in favor of a more “establishment” Republican who can appeal outside of the most religiously radical constituencies. Maybe that won’t happen this time—it’s been the strangest cycle I’ve seen in the 35 years I’ve been paying attention—but it’s been more than half a century since it hasn’t.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Wow, 2 posts one day after you explained why you weren’t posting much anymore. 😉

    As I said when the news first came that Cruz was now leading in Iowa: “So, Cruz is toast then.”

  2. C. Clavin says:

    Meanwhile the adults are getting shit done.
    This Paris Climate Deal is a BFD…and it tops Obama’s already impressive list of accomplishments.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @C. Clavin: Doug posted on that yesterday.

  4. Scott says:

    What people have to realize is that Iowa caucuses are so atypical of the nominating processes. Iowa, a pretty purple state, has its caucuses monopolized by activists. The Republican caucuses are deeply right wing, populated by right wing evangelicals and tea party people (a large overlap there). So Cruz may win a caucus there represented by less than 10% of the population as a whole. But the media will trumpet this as a major victory as if it is representative of the whole.

    Fortunately (I hope), the rest of the country will not find Cruz appealing in the least. Especially when his positions get publicized.

  5. stonetools says:

    MY money is on Cruz to win the nomination in the long run.Cruz is at this point likely to take Iowa and South Carolina, and will likely do pretty well in the South.
    I will say that his positions will kill him in the general, but they will probably be fine for the Republican primary.

  6. al-Ameda says:

    Ted Cruz is the base Republican best chance to be the “no more excuses” nominee.

    Since the nomination of Bob Dole in 1996 the base has complained bitterly that their ideas and their agenda has been ignored while establishment Republicans have nominated RINO after RINO. The fact that Cruz is an arrogant and unpleasant man (to be fair, lately he’s been trying to fake pleasantness) is probably part of his appeal among base Republicans.

    I think he’s here to stay, we’ll know after New Hampshire.

    If Crus maintains polling at or near the 27% crazification level, then I think he stands a good chance of being on the ticket.

  7. gVOR08 says:

    In the last two cycles it was clear pretty much from the get go that McCain and Romney were the anointed establishment candidates, Snow White to the Seven Dwarfs. This time establishment support is spread over the approximately seven dwarfs, Bush, Christie, Rubio, Kasich, Graham; and Trump stepped into the vacuum and became Snow White. At least for now.

    Trump can’t be trusted on taxes for the 1% or on carbon, Cruz can. Establishment money may be willing to coalesce (maybe congeal is a better word) around Cruz if they can’t decide on one of the approximately Seven Establishment Dwarfs. It’s hard to see Cruz winning the general, but it’s hard to argue any of the approximately Seven Dwarfs would have any better shot.

  8. CSK says:

    Trump’s lasting achievement may be that he was the one person in the line-up who could make Cruz seem semi-palatable–which is saying a lot. I don’t think either one would have the chance of a snowball in hell against Hillary Clinton, or maybe even Bernie Sanders.

  9. bookdragon says:

    How fast Cruz implodes depends on how meme-worthy whatever comic rendition of him prancing around to Flashdance’s ‘Maniac’ in a leotard and leg warmers becomes.

  10. C. Clavin says:

    @James Joyner:
    See what happens when I don’t check in over the weekend?

  11. C. Clavin says:

    Check out this NYTimes column on the out of control mendacity in the Republican Presidential campaign, with Cruz and Trump among the worst offenders.

  12. James Pearce says:

    But perhaps the most intriguing factor contributing to Cruz’s success is Trump’s overt extremism.

    Sure, but even then, those beer goggles don’t make Cruz look any better. Cruz has a bit of an extremism problem, too.

    I continue to think that the voters looking for “not Trumps” should stop looking at candidates from the “not gonna win the White House” crew. That just doesn’t seem to be happening though. On the right, it seems this election is all about wish-fulfillment, not power.

  13. C. Clavin says:

    @C. Clavin:
    3 down-votes? Apparently someone doesn’t like finding out they are being lied to…….

  14. CSK says:

    The popular wisdom seems to be that no candidate who doesn’t win at least one of the first three go-rounds–Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina–has no shot at being the Republican nominee. So what happens if Cruz wins Iowa, Christie wins New Hampshire, and Trump wins South Carolina?

    I admit that Christie is a long shot in New Hampshire, but he’s now second to Trump, and his numbers have doubled there in the past week.

  15. grumpy realist says:

    @CSK: The other question (which no one has answered) is whether any of the expressed interest for anybody is going to actually replicate itself at the polls. I wonder how many people are saying they’ll vote for “Trump!” simply to mess with the pollster’s results.

  16. CSK says:

    @grumpy realist:

    I don’t know if it was here that I read it, but wasn’t there a report to the effect that people who answer online or automated polls are more like to say they support Trump than people who have to speak to a real live pollster, whether on the phone or in person?

    If this is true, then it could indicate either that people who support Trump are too embarrassed to admit it to a sentient being, or that they could be just messing with the pollsters.

  17. Kylopod says:


    So what happens if Cruz wins Iowa, Christie wins New Hampshire, and Trump wins South Carolina?

    There was a split like that last time: in 2012, Santorum won Iowa, Romney took NH, and Gingrich carried South Carolina.

  18. ElizaJane says:

    Ezra Klein has a good post up today arguing that Cruz is the last best bitter hope of the Republican establishment against Trump because he appeals to multiple segments of the base (Evangelicals, government haters), whereas the candidates more beloved by the establishment (Rubio, Bush) don’t have much appeal to the base at all. They would be Romney redux and the Republican electorate seems determined not to let that happen.

  19. stonetools says:

    @C. Clavin:

    The Republican base has been conditioned :
    1. To be lied to.
    2. To furiously object when it is pointed out that they are being lied to.

    The good thing is that the mainstream media is finally taking note that the candidates of one party are lying far more than the other. The default until just the other day was “both sides do it”.
    Now that the media is noticing this, conservative media is furiously condemning the rest of the media for “taking sides” when what they are doing is pointing out objective truth. The Republican base is joining in the condemnation of the MSM.
    This is why candidates like Trump and Cruz flourish.

  20. C. Clavin says:

    @C. Clavin:
    So if you look at this link, which I provided above, you see Republican Presidential Candidates lie their a$$es off…and the Clinton’s and Obama are at the other end of the spectrum.
    Then read what this woman has to say…
    This is today’s Republican…and typical Trump supporter. Can Cruz’s be any different?
    Are there enough of these wing-nuts to win a National Election? Please tell me no.

  21. grumpy realist says:

    @ElizaJane: I still find myself highly amused by how Jeb!’s chances have crashed and burned. And he was supposed to be the “acceptable” candidate pushed on everyone by the Republican Establishment. He had the connections, he had the background (all hail the Bush family), and he was white-bread-plus-Velveta enough to be marketed to everybody.

    No wonder the base revolted.

    It’s like your mom continually nagging at you to go out with the pimply-faced dork son of her bridge partner, because “he’s such a nice boy”. You, of course, are raring to jump on the back of the motorcycle of the Cool Boy in town, because he smokes, has a tattoo on his arm, and wears a leather jacket.

  22. CSK says:


    I had forgotten that; thanks for the reminder. So by that principle, Christie would end up as the nominee.

  23. Gustopher says:

    The title of the post seems to assume that there is some clear line between the legitimate candidates and the –um– illegitimate candidates.

    There’s a pretty fundamental problem with a party if the base is excited by the complete crazies, and everyone is hoping they snap out of it when the voting starts. We saw this last time out, with the Bachmann and Cain surges (and I am pretty sure I am missing some of the crazy surges), and the voters finally, grudgingly went with Romney after exhausting every other possibility other than Ron Paul.

    This year, the primary schedule is a bit more compressed, and there are even more crazies who have crawled out from the woodwork. Why would anyone assume the crazies aren’t legitimate this time out?

  24. DrDaveT says:

    [Cruz] probably has the highest IQ of any candidate on either side of the aisle.


    Among Republicans, surely Rubio has the better intellectual resumé. I’m also not aware of any basis for thinking that Cruz has a higher IQ than Clinton, other than “I really really hate Hillary.”

  25. C. Clavin says:

    If Cruz is so smart why is it that everything he says is mendacious drivel?

  26. grumpy realist says:

    He [Cruz] probably has the highest IQ of any candidate on either side of the aisle.

    Thus showing that IQ has absolutely nothing to do with being effective and getting things done. Cruz just pisses a lot of people off. He doesn’t have the charisma of Trump. Hell, he doesn’t have the charisma of Richard Nixon! He’s a slimy little creep and when it comes down to a showdown between Trump and Cruz I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s Trump by a blowout.

  27. Scott says:

    @grumpy realist:

    I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s Trump by a blowout.

    In a normal primary, I might agree; however, in Iowa, I think Cruz is going to win big. Trump may get a plurality in a poll but Cruz will get actual caucus goers to actually vote.

    Applies to Iowa only.

  28. Rafer Janders says:


    Among Republicans, surely Rubio has the better intellectual resumé.

    Wait, what? Are you confusing the two? Rubio has a B.A. from the University of Florida and a J.D. from the University of Miami, whereas Ted went to Princeton and Harvard Law, where he graduated magna and was on the Law Review, and then clerked for Judge Luttig and Justice Rehnquist. I went to school with Ted and have many friends in common with him, and while he’s a lying little sociopath with the charisma of a dead sloth, I can’t deny that he’s academically brilliant.

  29. DrDaveT says:

    @C. Clavin:

    If Cruz is so smart why is it that everything he says is mendacious drivel?

    He might be a clever con man, who knows that what he’s saying is all damned lies. James seemed to be saying that he has reason to believe that to be the case, rather than that Cruz is a fool who believes his own tripe. I’m curious to know what that reason is.

  30. DrDaveT says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    Wait, what? Are you confusing the two?

    Apparently, yes. Thanks for the correction, which also answers my original question to James.

  31. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: I think both Cruz and Hillary are highly intelligent and competent. I can’t stand either of them. Cruz is a zealot whereas Hillary is simply out for Hillary. I’d take a random person from a random phone book over either of them.

  32. grumpy realist says:

    I’m suspicious of some of those polls, though. When they do supposed match-ups of Hillary vs. anyone, it turns out Carson beats Hillary. Huh? Are there really that many lunatics in the US who would dump the office of POTUS into the hands of a clueless brain surgeon with absolutely no governing experience?

    I think that a lot of people don’t LIKE Hillary, but in a best-of-the-two-evils case would hold their noses and vote for her. I know that’s what I’ll be doing.

    (Go Bernie!)

  33. stonetools says:

    @James Joyner:

    Unfortunately, James, the choice next November will likely be between Hillary and either Cruz, Trump, or Rubio, who has his own creepiness issues.YOPu’ve got some thinking to do before then, buddy.
    It’s less of a problem for me because in the competition between the competent but self-regarding politician and the the competent but self regarding politiial who is also a a zealot, the former is clearly the better choice. ON the issue of FP, it seems clear to me that HRC would run a much better shop than Ted ” Make the Sand Glow” Cruz.

  34. Pch101 says:

    I’ve long suspected that Cruz would prefer to turn himself into a media celebrity so that he can end up as a talk show host, author, etc.. He doesn’t behave like a guy who wants to be president — he does not hesitate to make enemies within his own party, the very people who he would need if he wants to become the leader of the GOP.

    Trump is in a similar boat, a troll who appears to be doing this more for his ego or entertainment than anything else. That would suggest that the top two contenders for the Republican nomination aren’t serious about going the distance, which is pretty comical.

    I’ll put myself out on a limb and say that Rubio will end up benefiting from this. I don’t think that anybody expected Jeb Bush to flame out as he has, and Rubio has a reasonably good chance of winning Florida’s electoral votes.

  35. C. Clavin says:

    @James Joyner:

    Hillary is simply out for Hillary.

    If I were her, and I was only out for myself, I can think of a lot more ways to do that than running for President…twice.

  36. Moosebreath says:

    @James Joyner:

    “Hillary is simply out for Hillary.”

    And this makes her different than every other politician because…?

  37. Kylopod says:


    So by that principle, Christie would end up as the nominee.

    If one election amounts to a “principle,” then sure.

    However, there’s hardly any rule that the winner in NH goes on to win the nomination. In 2000, the winner was John McCain; in 1996 it was Pat Buchanan. In 1992 Bill Clinton lost both Iowa and NH and went on to win the nomination (the only nominee in either party ever to achieve that feat). The winner of the GOP primary in South Carolina has always ended up winning the nomination–until 2012, when Newt Gingrich won the state but lost the nomination.

    In short: I’d be very cautious about trying to discern “rules” about how predictive the wins in early states are. I’d be surprised to see a candidate who failed to win all three of those early states going on to be nominated–but then again, you never know.

  38. James Joyner says:

    @stonetools: Right now, of those choices, I’d rank Rubio > Random Yahoo from Phone Book > Cruz > Trump > Reincarnated Hitler. I reserve the right to change my rankings between now an 11 months from now.

    @Pch101: I honestly think Cruz is the real deal. He’s an ideologue rather than a huckster.

    @Moosebreath: I think Cruz and Hillary are bad people. Hillary’s husband was a bad guy in some ways that sharply offended me at the time but I think he also genuinely cared for people. I don’t know that either Cruz or Hillary do.

  39. Moosebreath says:

    @James Joyner:

    “I think Cruz and Hillary are bad people. Hillary’s husband was a bad guy in some ways that sharply offended me at the time but I think he also genuinely cared for people. I don’t know that either Cruz or Hillary do.”

    I think I need more info on why you think they are bad people, and why that matters. They are not going to be your friend, after all. They are running for President, and being a good person can be a hindrance in that position (see Jimmy Carter).

    Now, I have read several accounts of Cruz, mostly during his time in college and law school, which would lead me to believe I would not want him as a friend. But that will have no bearing on whether I would vote for him (he has no chance against virtually anyone the Democrats could possibly put up based on his political stands, but I don’t think my objections to him are the same as yours).

  40. Neil Hudelson says:

    @James Joyner:

    Hillary’s husband was a bad guy in some ways that sharply offended me at the time but I think he also genuinely cared for people. I don’t know that either Cruz or Hillary do.

    I’d be curious to read more of your thoughts on this. As a Millennial, my experience with Hillary began in 2008, outside of whatever knowledge a child can pick up from nightly news in the 90s.

    When I’ve gone back and read histories of the 90s, political documentaries, etc., I can understand that as a very active First Lady, she rankled a lot of people politically, but I cannot figure out the personal hate for her.

    And to be clear, I do not agree with her foreign policy, supported Obama over her (and Richardson over Obama) in the primaries, and thought she was a middling Secretary of State, at best.

  41. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Neil Hudelson: If you’ve watched Mad Men or The Good Wife, she’s basically the equivalent of a Peggy or a Diane Lockhart – the woman who came of age career-wise in the 60s or early 70s and had to bruise a lot of established male egos in order to do get anywhere.

  42. Pch101 says:

    @James Joyner:

    I honestly think Cruz is the real deal. He’s an ideologue rather than a huckster.

    He may or may not be an ideologue, but I think that a guy who had sincere presidential aspirations would do a better job of building intraparty alliances. The president is the de facto leader of his party, and Cruz has burned too many bridges to effectively lead a coalition. Cruz’s persona is more consistent with a media figure who wants to sell books and generate TV ratings.

  43. MarkedMan says:

    Wow. You guys just missed a brilliant post. Oh so carefully crafted – and then the page reloaded and all was gone. And I’m too tired to even think about starting over… Like a fisherman and his fish tales, my posts that got away are infinitely better than the ones I actually landed.

  44. al-Ameda says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    When I’ve gone back and read histories of the 90s, political documentaries, etc., I can understand that as a very active First Lady, she rankled a lot of people politically, but I cannot figure out the personal hate for her.

    The Right ginned up an intense hate of the Clintons since a bit before Inauguration Day 1993. The Clintons were under permanent investigation for 6 of the 8 year 2-term Clinton presidency. Just look at what we have today, it seems familiar – a current never-ending, multiple investigations of Hillary and her role in “Benghazi, ” all intended to fix the result, none interested in truth. Some things never change.

  45. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    @MarkedMan: Commiseration. Also: Lazarus has largely removed that problem fro my worries list.

  46. Pch101 says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    When I’ve gone back and read histories of the 90s, political documentaries, etc., I can understand that as a very active First Lady, she rankled a lot of people politically, but I cannot figure out the personal hate for her.

    Reagan led a transformation of the GOP which moved it from being a pro-business party that included liberals and moderates into an anti-liberal party with a coalition of Christian conservatives and disaffected Dixiecrats who believe themselves to be morally superior to their opponents. The idea of a two-party system with a majority party balanced by a loyal opposition has been killed off by the Republicans as part of the Southern Strategy.

    That process has included not just opposing but vilifying the opposition, and Hillary Clinton positioned herself during the first Bill Clinton term as a sort of co-president who would bring her own activism to the table. While her husband was being attacked for his alleged pot-smoking, womanizing ways, she suffered a notable defeat with her healthcare proposal, the failure of which betrayed her lack of political savvy at the time.

    Hillary made herself a target for a group that is actively in search of targets, and she did a poor job of managing those attacks. It probably doesn’t help that she doesn’t exactly have a warm and cuddly persona that might help to blunt the assault.

  47. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @C. Clavin: I think that the down votes are from people in the audience who have come to the conclusion that the climate deal isn’t “all that and a bag of chips.” Granted, any agreement that can be achieved is better than no agreement, but the climate deal as it is currently is simply an extension of our real-life demonstration for the Tragedy of the Commons.

  48. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: Sorry, I thought the comment about down votes was from your first comment. My bad. As to why people are down voting the other comment, well it may be a “and rain is wet, too; so what’s your point?” reaction. Otherwise, I got nuthin.