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.