One month ago, I wrote that Ted Cruz was unlikely to win the GOP nomination. The reason: his support and entire political persona was based in the most conservative portions of the party, portions that did not come close to comprising a majority. He trailed potential rival Marco Rubio among the key group that historically decides who wins, the “somewhat conservatives”.
Well, I did write that “a month is forever in politics”, and December so far looks to be one of the months. Cruz has now pulled ahead of or significantly narrowed the gap with Rubio among somewhat conservatives and Republicans who prefer someone who can beat Hillary to someone who is the most conservative on the issues. If he maintains this position, Cruz looks to emerge as either the nominee or as Trump’s main challenger.
This pro-Cruz trend can be found in national, Iowa, and New Hampshire polls. Today’s Quinnipiac poll has the biggest change, showing Cruz up six points among somewhat conservatives and Rubio down a whopping 15 points over its November poll. But other polls show similar, although less dramatic, movement. PPP’s December national poll, for example, shows Cruz unchanged among somewhat conservatives but Rubio down 3 points, and its Iowa poll show Cruz up 9 points among somewhat conservatives from late October. CBS/You Gov’s December Iowa poll has Cruz up 23 percent among its version of somewhat conservatives and Rubio dropping by two. The CBS/You Gov New Hampshire poll has Cruz up 3 among somewhat conservatives (Rubio is unchanged) over its last installment, and the December Boston Herald poll shows Cruz gaining three points over its October poll.
In all, Cruz either leads Rubio among somewhat conservatives or trails him by five points or less in all six polls. This means Cruz can ride his huge lead over Rubio among very conservative voters (which nationally is between 28 and 30 percent) to victory.
This is true even if the race narrows down to a one-on-one contest between the two. Last month Rubio led Cruz in this hypothetical matchup (from PPP’s national poll) by 5 points: today, he trails by 14. The difference comes from somewhat conservatives, where Rubio 15 point margin has turned into a Cruz 9 point lead, and from the majority of Republicans who prefer someone who can win in November to the most conservative on the issues. In the hypothetical one-on-one, Cruz went from being 17 points down to 8 points up, a massive 25 points change on the margin. His margin among those who want the most conservative man on the issues, in contrast, barely budged, increasing by a mere six points.
Donald Trump, of course, continues to lead the polls everywhere except Iowa, but Cruz’s rising support among the GOP’s ballast signals that he, not Rubio, might ultimately emerge as the establishment’s reluctant warrior against Trump. Rubio must turn this around if he is to become the anti-Trump in the final stages of the race, or – if Trump fades – if he is to beat Cruz.
There are still six weeks until the first votes are cast. A month ago Cruz looked to be the candidate only of the movement conservatives, with support limited to the third of the party that counts itself in this group. A month from now, things could change again and Rubio, Christie, or maybe someone else could put together a good month of their own. But give credit where credit is due: Ted Cruz has had a great December.