Politics & Policy

Ted Cruz’s Risky Bet on the Conservative Base

Cruz and his campaign bus in Maquoketa, Iowa, January 25, 2016. (Joe Raedle/Getty)

Ted Cruz has a ready answer for the many Republicans who see him as a rigid ideologue likely to be demolished should he make it to the general election: Such an ideologue is the party’s only hope of winning in 2016.

Since his election to the Senate in 2012, Cruz has argued that center-right candidates such as John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 demoralized conservatives and kept them away from the polls; run a right-winger who can energize them, he promises, and the resulting outpouring of enthusiasm will carry Republicans to victory. Cruz and his team have talked endlessly about the power of these missing conservative voters, and their theory remains the subject of considerable skepticism in the political class.

Yet Cruz heads the most data-driven campaign in the GOP race, employing cutting-edge technologies to profile, target, and turn out supporters. Statistical awareness permeates the culture of the operation from the candidate to his most junior aides. And Cruz’s top advisers, speaking strictly on background, say the Texas senator’s controversial claims about the untapped conservative masses — along with many other calculations and assumptions the campaign is making about the upcoming election — are far from conjecture.

“Our decisions are based on actual data,” a senior Cruz adviser tells National Review. “If we see something and my gut says no, if there’s data that disproves what I think is right or wrong . . . too bad, so sad. And we hold each other accountable on that.”

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Cruz’s top advisers have relied on the work of a handful of political scientists to shape their view of the 2016 race, though these scholars dispute some of their conclusions. Cruz’s team points to the dozens of scholarly articles written by Jim Campbell of the University at Buffalo, who has spent decades measuring the impact of swing voters on presidential elections, and to the 2013 book The Gamble, a data-driven account of the 2012 election by the professors John Sides and Lynn Vavreck. (When I tell the Cruz adviser I’m not familiar with the book, which I have since read, he looks at me blankly and says, “It is an incredible disservice to you and your employer and anybody who does what you do, the fact that you haven’t read that book.”)

Reading Campbell’s academic work about the influence of swing voters, one can almost hear Cruz delivering one of his stem-winders. Since 1972, the vast majority of winning presidential candidates could have lost the swing vote “by a landslide,” Campbell wrote in The Swing Voter in American Politics, and still won the popular vote. He argues that it’s actually base voters who decide elections, meaning that candidates can win nationwide “with only a relatively small share of the swing vote.”

The country’s increasing polarization over the past eight years has reinforced Campbell’s thesis, a fact not lost on Cruz. “Do you know what percent of the electorate is expected to be a swing vote in 2016?” he asks me on a mid-January tour of New Hampshire. “About 6 percent. Ninety-four percent or more of the electorate will either be locked on one side or the other and it will be a turnout race.”

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Campbell tells me that the Cruz campaign is overlooking another fundamental aspect of his work: The party itself needs to be united behind its nominee, and the open warfare that has broken out over the prospect of Cruz becoming the GOP’s standard-bearer suggests that’s unlikely to happen should he best his Republican rivals. “A candidate who appeals only to the establishment or only to the true-blue conservative can’t win” the general election, Campbell says. “You need them both together. Even if you got every conservative out to vote, you still need moderate support as well. And the establishment can’t hope to put together a winning ticket without conservative support.”

Cruz may talk about 54 million missing Evangelical voters — that’s the number he cited to me last week — but his campaign isn’t actually trying to turn them all out to the polls. Their ambitions are more modest. “If you want a benchmark to look to, I’ll take 2008, I’ll take 2004,” says the Cruz adviser, referring to the number of voters who turned out to support the Republican in those years. His boss’s claims to the contrary, he doesn’t actually fault Romney’s 2012 campaign, which won independent voters by six points. “They did achieve what they wanted to achieve,” he says. “They just picked the wrong target, and the odds were stacked against them.”

‘This whole theory that Cruz has about the election, it doesn’t stand scrutiny,’ says Stuart Stevens.

That itself is a claim disputed by Romney’s own strategists and independent political analysts alike. “This whole theory that Cruz has about the election, it doesn’t stand scrutiny,” says Stuart Stevens, who served as a senior adviser to Romney during the 2012 race. He notes that Cruz ran behind Romney in Texas, and that, with the exception of Ohio, turnout declined among white, Evangelical voters in states Romney won handily, meaning the enthusiasm gap in those states had no effect on the race’s final outcome.

The Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter has reinforced these findings: She notes that the 20 states with the highest turnout in 2012 included “every competitive swing state.” And she draws a distinction between independent voters, which Romney won, and self-described moderates, which he lost in a 15-point landslide. A moderate, she argues, is “a more accurate representation of a swing voter because there is evidence to suggest those who called themselves independents actually leaned to the right.”

The Cruz campaign is nevertheless fixated on the declining turnout of non-Hispanic whites, who, when they do show up, vote overwhelmingly Republican. Among that group, turnout declined from 68 percent of the eligible voting population in 2004 to 66 percent in 2008 to 64 percent in 2012. But between 2000 and 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Bush campaign, thanks to concentrated voter-targeting efforts and anti-gay-marriage ballot initiatives in over a dozen states, managed to increase the number of white voters who showed up to the polls by six percentage points. Cruz’s team keeps a version of the chart below on hand, and used it in persuading donors to pledge their support.

Cruz and his team say a candidate turns out voters by pushing their ideological buttons. But they view every message through a cost-benefit lens: For every issue Cruz talks about on the trail, there are voters he’ll inspire to turn out on the GOP side and, and those he’ll inspire to come out and pull the lever for the Democrats. The trick is to find the messages that bring out more Republican supporters than Democratic oppositionists, a task that the campaign is devoting a great deal of research to right now.

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Campbell, of the University of Buffalo, says he’s skeptical Cruz can accomplish something more basic: The party has to unite behind a candidate in the first place. “We can’t afford not to have a unified party because a lot of the fundamentals are in place that favor the Republican party, that should set the stage for a Republican victory unless Republicans can’t get their act together.”

I ask Campbell if he thinks Cruz can muster the establishment support necessary to unify the party and pull off a general-election victory. “I don’t think so,” he says, “and he hasn’t made much of an effort to do it. My dream ticket would be a Rubio-Kasich ticket.” Rubio, Campbell argues, is the only candidate who has shown the ability to appeal to both ideological conservatives and establishment moderates.

The Cruz campaign has also focused on a raft of research about the so-called “fundamentals” of presidential elections, the indicators that tip the scale in favor of one party or another: whether an incumbent is running for reelection or it’s an open contest; how well the economy is doing; and the increasing polarization of the electorate, which has whittled down the number of swing voters up for grabs. That’s where Sides and Vavreck’s The Gamble comes in.

Campbell says he’s skeptical Cruz can accomplish something more basic: The party has to unite behind a candidate in the first place.

The Cruz team believes the fundamentals of the 2016 race favor a Republican victory, and there is evidence in The Gamble to support that view. Sides and Vavreck say the country has become more conservative during the Obama presidency because, contrary to what Obama’s election and reelection might suggest, voters tend to become more conservative under liberal presidents and vice versa. “Far from ushering in a liberal majority, the Obama administration’s agenda — which included an economic stimulus, greater regulation of the banking industry, and, most important, health-care reform — led the public to prefer less government, not more government,” they write. “Obama helped increase the conservatism of the American public more than Reagan ever did, ironically enough.”

The pair also dismisses the notion that the 2012 race said anything about the need for the GOP to moderate its policies. “The fortunes of political parties rise and fall with the underlying fundamentals,” they write, and, because incumbent presidents are hard to beat, because the economy was improving, and because voters had a generally favorable opinion of Obama, “the fundamentals in the country favored Obama.” Thus, “The Republican party’s loss in 2012 was mainly about performance — specifically, that Obama had ‘performed’ well enough, as judged by the fundamentals — and less about policy.”

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But Sides is less sanguine than Cruz about the GOP’s chances in 2016. “I couldn’t yet say with any confidence whether the fundamentals favor the Republicans,” he tells me. “I’d say the jury’s out.” His bet: The president’s popularity remains a neutral factor, neither helping nor hurting the Democratic nominee. And he says it’s too early to tell which party the economy will favor.

Like Campbell, Sides offers a word of caution about deeply ideological candidates. “There is some research that shows that candidates who are strongly ideological do suffer a penalty at the ballot box,” he says, pointing to the performance of Republican Barry Goldwater, who lost a landslide to Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and Democrat George McGovern, who was clobbered by Richard Nixon in 1972.

#related#And yet, it’s easy to see how Campbell, Sides, and Vavreck have informed Cruz’s thinking. “One of the amazing things about Washington is, you turn on any Sunday show and you have a group of political experts sitting around, and the topic comes up, ‘How do you need to do to win a general election? What does Hillary need to do to win the general?’ And they say, ‘Well, she’s gotta turn out her base, she’s gotta energize her base, get them out, passionate and energized,’” Cruz tells me. “Same panel: ‘Ok, What does the Republican need to do to win? He’s gotta run to the middle, he’s gotta demoralize their base, kick ‘em in the teeth, sound just like the Democrats.’ And there’s not a moment of cognitive dissonance.”

Cruz has proven he can motivate the Republican base. His next challenge will be to win over the Republican establishment. As Campbell puts it, “The trick is being able to do both of those and to figure out how far you need to reach in both directions.” Much as Cruz inveighs against it, if he becomes the Republican standard-bearer, he may need to tiptoe toward the mushy middle.

— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.


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