Ted Cruz is not a lot of people’s cup of tea. For moderate Republicans and Republican-leaning independents — not just ideological moderates but people of a moderate, gradualist temperament — voting for Ted Cruz is just about the last thing they came into this primary season thinking of doing. Cruz’s reputation for ideological purism and bomb-throwing, his efforts at government shutdowns and internecine warfare against GOP leadership, and his Evangelical-preacher style turn off a lot of people who ordinarily vote Republican but don’t consider themselves Goldwater-style conservatives. Cruz’s distant third-place finish in New York — probably to be followed by similar showings in some other Northeast states today — emphasized the trouble he has in persuading moderate voters to support him. Exit polls in New York, for example, showed Donald Trump winning moderates 46–42 over John Kasich, with Cruz garnering just 13 percent, a far cry from his double-digit wins in Wisconsin and Utah.
As the Republican primary campaign rolls into its final five-week sprint, the effort to stop Donald Trump and save the GOP from disaster will depend heavily on whether moderate voters are willing to pull the lever for Cruz. Especially given the importance of the winner-take-all delegate allocations in Indiana, California, and Washington, moderates will need to abandon John Kasich and unite behind Cruz in order to defeat Trump.
One: This Election Is Too Important to Punt. The temptation to take your ball and go home — which all of us feel at least a little when our preferred choices don’t get the nomination — seems overwhelming this cycle, as Donald Trump degrades the discourse, lowers everyone around him into the mud, and generally leaves Republicans depressed about our chances in November and embittered toward other voters in our party. It’s easy and tempting to just let Trump take the nomination and the Mondale-sized defeat he’s cruising towards (see Point #3), and say “I told you so” later on.
But the 2016 election is far too important for any Republican of any stripe — moderate or conservative, party stalwart or occasional party voter — to just check out. The Supreme Court — the most powerful branch of the federal government, by far — hangs in the balance, and while some moderates may not love a five-justice conservative majority, they will hate the five-justice lockstep-liberal majority that would follow a Hillary Clinton victory this fall. Obamacare, too, will be truly impossible to dislodge if the Democrats win again in 2016. And even immigration moderates should blanch at letting Obama’s unilateral executive amnesty go into effect without the input of Congress. And that’s before we get to foreign policy, a president’s most important job. Twelve years of Democratic control of the White House, with its expansive powers and massive cultural footprint, is intolerable for everyone who is not already a Democrat.
In order to win the nomination on the first ballot at the Republican convention, you need 1,237 pledged or committed delegates. Only Trump still has a chance to get that — and only Cruz can beat him in the places needed to stop Trump. Yes, it’s theoretically possible that Kasich or even Marco Rubio or a darker-horse candidate could be selected by a divided convention — but the only way we even enter that conversation is if Trump is denied a majority of delegates.
So, Cruz is the main game in town to stop Trump. Is he the only game? The Northeast would normally be considered more logical turf for a Kasich-style moderate than for a candidate like Cruz. But Kasich was unable to get the job done there. Outside of Ohio, Kasich has thus far finished ahead of both Trump and Cruz only in a single Manhattan congressional district and the District of Columbia. Overall, since this race narrowed to a three-man contest after March 15, Kasich has been able to take only five delegates away from Trump compared with Cruz’s over 100, 76 of those from Cruz’s lopsided statewide wins in Wisconsin and Utah.
Going forward outside the Northeast, the essential rules and dynamics of sequential primary voting make a vote for Kasich a vote for Trump. First, most of the remaining states operate on some version of winner-take-all delegate allocation. New Jersey, South Dakota, and Nebraska (107 delegates) are pure winner-take-all states. Indiana and California (219 delegates) award winner-take-all delegates statewide and also on a district-by-district basis, and the same goes for Washington’s 30 district delegates if anyone cracks 50 percent, and West Virginia’s 34 delegates, who are elected directly. Only New Mexico’s and Oregon’s delegates, and Washington’s 14 statewide delegates, are selected proportionally, and Washington and New Mexico have minimum thresholds, so that a trailing candidate can win votes that don’t count in the delegate allocation. Note that Cruz’s deal to stay out of campaigning in Oregon and New Mexico leaves Kasich fighting for proportional delegates, while Kasich’s staying out of Indiana means that his voters there are just throwing their votes away: Kasich can’t possibly finish first anywhere in a state where he’s third in the polls and not campaigning. The same will be overwhelmingly the case in California, where Kasich has run behind both Trump and Cruz in every statewide poll taken thus far.
All of that is before you discuss the fact that Kasich has almost no money left, plus the psychological dynamics of trying to rally around a third-place going-nowhere candidate — the same dynamics that led Kasich to finish behind Cruz even in Midwestern heartland states such as Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Simply stated, from now until the convention, the anti-Trump forces need to pick a horse, and Ted Cruz is the only game in town. If they do, Trump can and will still be stopped.
Three: Ted Cruz Might Beat Hillary Clinton; Donald Trump Won’t. But why prefer Cruz to Trump in a general election, regardless of their merits as a potential president? Because Trump is a sure loser — and Cruz, while he might not be the best general-election candidate the GOP field started with, is not.
How does Cruz poll against Hillary? Well, that depends when you asked the question: In the RealClearPolitics national average, Cruz trailed Hillary badly last summer, but persistently closed the gap with her over the fall, pulled even in January, and surged ahead of her (albeit never by a very wide margin) in polls taken throughout January and February. He sagged badly in late March, but has remained close in most recent national polls, which tend to put both Cruz and Hillary in the mid 40s with a lot of undecideds (the last five national polls included Cruz tied 47–47, and down 45–44, 46–44, and 45–42; only one poll had him down as far as 49–42. All of that suggests a candidate with a puncher’s chance — with both candidates stuck in the same general band in the mid 40s in April, the race could be a knife fight between two unpopular candidates who both turn off voters in the middle, and much will come down to turnout and making an impression on undecided voters. As to the turnout challenge, it plays to Cruz’s strength with the GOP’s ideological and religious base, which might make the difference; as to the undecideds, Cruz (unlike Hillary and Trump) is still not well-known with people who don’t vote in primaries, so he has a better chance to win over a few votes.
Trump, by contrast, gets consistently slaughtered: Out of 69 general-election polls over the past eleven months in RCP’s database, Trump has led Clinton in five, tied her in two, and trailed in the other 62 — 37 of those by seven points or more, 27 by double digits. The trend is getting worse: He trails by ten to 18 points in six of the last ten polls, and since the beginning of March, Clinton has reached 50 percent or better in nine of 16 national polls. Trump is weak and getting weaker.
Trump is a sure loser — and Cruz, while he might not be the best general-election candidate the GOP field started with, is not.
While Cruz and Clinton both have poor favorable/unfavorable ratings, Trump’s unfavorables are in the mid 60s, which is fatal territory for a candidate with near-universal name recognition. The picture typically gets worse when you look at the number of voters who have very unfavorable views of Trump, meaning opinions strong enough to be set in stone. While Cruz’s hardline views on immigration would prevent him from being a huge draw with Hispanic voters, he could offset that with his status as America’s first Hispanic president — a distinction that, at a minimum, would prevent him from activating the sort of massive, alarmed voter mobilization that Trump would engender among Hispanic voters. The same is true with young voters, who might not love Cruz but at least will recognize him as a distinct contrast in age to Hillary Clinton (Trump is even older than she is).
But polling is never the whole story. Cruz would have other extensive advantages over Trump in a general election: He wouldn’t split the party in two, dry up the party’s fundraising, send down-ticket Republicans scurrying for cover, or alienate the whole apparatus of actors who typically make up a general-election push: grassroots activists, conservative columnists, pro-lifers and church groups, and the libertarian Koch-brothers network.
Four: Ted Cruz Knows What He’s Doing. This is related both to why Cruz can still win the general election and why he is the only man left standing between Trump and the GOP nomination: Cruz is tremendously competent and absolutely tireless. His campaign team has been astonishingly savvy from the outset by every possible metric: staying afloat in the Trump storm, over-performing Cruz’s polls in most every state, using data analytics to drive turnout, raising vast amounts of money, and playing every angle of the delegate rules. Cruz is one of the least gaffe-prone politicians in memory: He sometimes says things that have debatable returns with voters, but he almost always says exactly what he intends to say. He’s a remarkably fluent and aggressive debater, a legacy of his time as a successful Supreme Court lawyer and national college-debate champ. In terms of raw brainpower, he’s one of the smartest people ever to run for the office. In terms of campaign management, he has prospered by demanding results — where other campaigns used the old model of hiring campaign veterans, Cruz has pushed his outside consultants to compete with each other to produce measurable progress. That also bodes well for his conduct in office as commander-in-chief, head of the executive branch, and de facto leader of the party on domestic issues.
Cruz is also pretty close to scandal-free, despite the National Enquirer’s efforts to gin up a sex scandal so bogus even Trump’s chief spokeswoman vigorously denied it. The only knock anyone’s really been able to find on Cruz’s ethics was the failure to report a loan on a campaign form that Cruz had disclosed elsewhere — a pretty venial sin in the Byzantine world of D.C. “ethics” rules.
Cruz’s strategic judgment is not above question, but as a candidate or a potential president, Ted Cruz would do the very best job you could get from Ted Cruz. He won’t make mistakes as a result of fatigue, political inexperience, blind reliance on bad advice, or foot-in-mouth disease. That matters.
Five: The Republican Party Can Survive Losing with Ted Cruz. Another reason a Cruz nomination is preferable for moderate Republicans to just letting Trump take the nomination and fail with it: A Cruz defeat would do far less damage to the party. In the worst-case scenario of a Cruz loss, he energizes the GOP base, but loses the center to Hillary Clinton. That’s bad, if you are trying to win the White House — but if you’re a down-ticket Republican House or Senate candidate, it’s not a bad place to be at all. Cruz throughout the primaries has consistently matched or over-performed his polls in a high-turnout race, a sign that his data-intensive campaign has been successful in turning out his core voters. Fifty years ago, Cruz might have lost by a Barry Goldwater–sized margin, but the polarization of today’s electorate means that unless you run a Trump-type candidate who fractures his own party, you’re unlikely to get blown out that badly. And moderates should be especially worried about down-ticket races, because moderate candidates in swing districts tend to be hardest hit when the tide is low.
Six: Ted Cruz Won’t Rest until He Gets His Shot. Let’s say you think — as do many moderate Republicans, and even as do many ideologically conservative but of-moderate-temperament Republicans – that, despite all of the above, Ted Cruz is a self-promoter with no loyalty to the party, a demagogue who promises unrealistic results without a plan to deliver them, and a Goldwater-sized general-election disaster in his own right waiting to happen. You’re terrified of nominating Ted Cruz. Well, guess what? Cruz isn’t going away! Trump is 70 years old and his coalition is incoherent — he might vow to run again if denied the nomination, but it is likely to be a hollow threat, as the party can prepare a better response to him next time even if he tries.
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But Cruz is 45, disciplined and determined, and he has a highly coherent message and coalition and a huge grassroots network that is deeply invested in his view that the GOP Establishment has been conspiring to keep True Conservatism from the voters. Cruz doesn’t depend on accomplishing things in the Senate to stay relevant; the mere fact that things conservatives dislike keep happening in Washington is fuel enough for him. And after his 17-point whomping of Trump in the Texas primary, nobody thinks Cruz will be vulnerable in 2018.
All of which means that if the GOP nominates Trump in 2016 and loses, Ted Cruz will claim the next-in-line mantle and be off to the races preparing for 2020. Stopping him then will not be easy. If you think Cruz is a disaster waiting to happen, better to let him happen now and have a chance at a more moderate or at least more moderate-sounding nominee next time.
Moreover, if Cruz loses to Hillary, conservatives will be compelled to listen. Cruz is the beau idéal of a “True Conservative,” in the prime of his career, facing an aging, unlikeable opponent with massive scandal baggage, a dynast in a populist year against a populist opponent. If he can’t beat her, the party’s conservatives will have no choice but to reassess the idea that too little conservatism has been the only problem with recent national tickets.
Seven: You Can Live with Ted Cruz and His Supporters. Moderates have been frustrated for decades now by the prominence of religious conservatives in the GOP. Cruz fuses those with the sort of small-government activists who make up the Tea Party. But here’s the thing: If you’re a moderate Republican, you’ve already spent plenty of years co-existing with these folks, and seeing them take their turn at the head of the queue might not be ideal, but fundamentally, they are decent, well-behaved people. And their leader may be a populist, but he’s also an intellectual, via Princeton and Harvard Law; if you’re the sort of Republican who is sometimes vaguely embarrassed by the anti-intellectualism of some of our party’s loudest voices, it’s a change of pace to support a guy who will always be smarter, better educated, and more articulate than his critics.
The Trump movement, as we have seen, is nothing like that. Trump is crude, ignorant, and proud of both, the sort of man who boasts about being a serial adulterer and is unafraid to insult entire races, religions, and ethnic groups. Trump’s rallies have frequently turned ugly, and he has activated an army of white supremacists (especially online) who pollute everything around them. Trump’s prominent endorsers include all sorts of disreputable and embarrassing people. He’s replaced a campaign manager who got in trouble for manhandling a female reporter with one who’s been a toady for nasty foreign dictators and has been linked to the Russian mob.
Cruz ascendant may mean more religiosity in the GOP, more lectures about principle, and more demands for rejecting compromises in Washington. But Trump ascendant means a wholesale rejection of the very concept of civil debate and empiricism in favor of raw rage and fringe conspiracy theories.
Eight: Ted Cruz Might Be the Man to Tame Trumpism. A lot of the Trump movement is unique and personal to The Donald, but there are underlying currents within the party and its fellow travelers that Trump has tapped into that have not previously been represented by a single, national figure. While those currents might never reassert themselves in the same way without a spokesman as famous and wealthy and charismatic as Trump, they’re not going away either: hostility to immigration and trade, skepticism of foreign entanglements, and rebellion against how the terms of cultural debate are set by the educated and the commanding heights of Hollywood.
America’s two-party system has proven so remarkably durable in the face of waves of populist insurgency and realignment because, whenever a new movement has arisen or a new coalition or alliance has been formed, one or both parties has moved to respond to it, co-opt it, provide it with more responsible leadership, and ultimately tame it. Trump’s movement can go the same way, if we nominate a leader who is responsive to those currents.
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Cruz is the most logical candidate to do that. He’s already an immigration hardliner who rails against “amnesty,” a skeptic of some trade deals, a critic of a number of foreign interventions, a vocal foe of radical Islam, and a defender of traditional cultural values. Moderate Republicans may not want a lot of what Cruz is selling on those issues, but in each case, he can offer more responsible leadership than Trump, much the way Reagan’s leadership tamed many of the right-wing currents of the Nixon and Wallace years. If this is the way a significant faction in the party is likely to be headed in years to come, better to choose a leader who can actually provide leadership. A turn in power can cure a lot of frustrations by showing some progress. A John Kasich campaign or administration is unlikely to ever learn the language of the Trump supporters. Cruz, once the dust has settled after the convention, can try.
Nine: Ted Cruz Loves the Constitution. Whatever else one might say about Cruz, you could be sure of this: If here were president, he would respect our existing constitutional structure, which has been terribly stressed by both parties in recent decades. Ted Cruz loves the Constitution like a fat kid loves cake, like a dog loves a tennis ball, like Donald Trump loves the sound of his own name. Cruz memorized the entire thing as a teenager, could recite it at length to friends, and in many ways is still at heart as much a constitutional appeals lawyer as he is a politician. Cruz is unlikely to go as far as some of Trump’s more far-out theories of what the government can do on immigration or torture. And Cruz’s devoted constitutional federalism is likely to give moderate Republicans in culturally bluer parts of the country the free hand they need to build big-tent socially liberal state parties, as evidenced by Cruz’s support for repealing federal marijuana laws and letting states make their own choices.
Ten: President Cruz Would Be More Responsible Than You Think. So we come at last to the big-picture question: Can moderates live with Ted Cruz as the president of the United States? Cruz’s record as a senator, after all, is a big part of what scares and alienates moderates: the constant brinksmanship, the over-promising and under-delivering, the tendency to lead his troops to disaster and then walk away, like Napoleon returning alone from Egypt or Moscow.But it needs to be remembered that the brashness of Senator Cruz has been driven by strategic necessities that would not be as urgent for President Cruz. A Republican president with a Republican Congress doesn’t need to shut down the government every time he wants something done. By the same token, Cruz would have to accept his role as team leader — and while that may be an unaccustomed role for Cruz, it inevitably means some compromises, some concessions, some deals that “get to yes.” That too would impose some reality checks on Cruz’s more zealous supporters. And as noted above, the empiricism and results-oriented nature of Cruz’s campaign operation bodes well for his management of the executive branch, in which he once worked (at the FTC).
Ted Cruz is not Republican moderates’ best friend. But right now, he might be their only friend.
– Dan McLaughlin is an attorney in New York City and a regular contributor to conservative websites and publications.