Politics & Policy

Cruz Is a Safer General-Election Bet than Trump

Cruz speaks at a rally in San Diego, Calif., April 12, 2016. (Bill Wechter/AFP/Getty)

The conventional wisdom is that though Ted Cruz can excite the conservative-activist base of the Republican party, he can’t beat Hillary Clinton in a general election. But the recent head-to-head polling tells a different story. 

Unless your name is George W. Bush, it’s tough to win 270 electoral votes without winning the popular vote. And Cruz is hanging in there against the Democratic front-runner. The RealClearPolitics average puts Clinton at 46.4 percent and Cruz at 43.9 percent; the most recent McClatchy-Marist survey has it a tie. Meanwhile, Donald Trump, the current Republican front-runner, hasn’t led Clinton in any national poll since mid February, and trails her by 10.6 points in the RCP average.

Democrats will contend the Texas senator is unlikeable, and scoff that about 53 percent of adults have an unfavorable opinion of Cruz . . . a charge that would carry more weight if 54 percent of adults didn’t have an unfavorable opinion of Clinton. Cruz and his campaign have openly discussed a general-election strategy focused upon mobilizing conservative voters who haven’t turned out in recent cycles, and de-emphasizing an appeal to swing voters. Quite a few political scientists, pollsters, and analysts are skeptical that the approach can win, but what if 2016 comes down to Hillary Clinton, unloved by the Sanders-backing progressive base and distrusted by independents, against Cruz and an energized GOP base?

As NR reported back in January, “Cruz heads the most data-driven campaign in the GOP race, employing cutting-edge technology to profile, target, and turn out supporters. Statistical awareness permeates the culture of the operation from the candidate to his most junior aides.” Based on the Cruz campaign’s deft maneuvering in the delegate chase, there’s some reason to believe the Texas senator’s claims that he can win by focusing on the little details and mobilizing previously ignored voters.

RELATED: Trump and Cruz: A Tale of Two Campaigns, One of Which Is Competent

Trump also contends he’ll bring out new voters, winning over blue-collar independents and the old Reagan Democrats. His fans have argued that he would put a lot of traditionally Democratic states, such as New York and Michigan, back in play. But so far, there’s little evidence to back up that claim; Trump trails Clinton in his home state of New York by 16 to 29 points. In the three polls in Michigan in March, Trump trailed by double digits. (Unsurprisingly, Cruz polls badly in these states, too.)

Florida is one of the few states where Trump is running better against Clinton than Cruz is. Trump has enjoyed a narrow lead over Clinton in about half the recent polls there, while Clinton nurses a small but steady lead over Cruz. (For what it’s worth, the latest CNN poll has Cruz ahead of her by one point in Florida.)

#share#Cruz is running surprisingly well in Ohio. The most recent NBC News/Marist poll puts Cruz ahead of Clinton by two points there, while Trump trails her by six. Quinnipiac, the only recent poll of the Buckeye State to show Trump leading Clinton, has Cruz ahead of her by three and Trump up by two.

RELATED: Ted Cruz Is Surging by Design

Pennsylvania is one of those states that seems to tease the GOP every election cycle, only to vote for the Democratic nominee by a comfortable margin. Winning Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes would provide a big boost to any Republican nominee, forcing the Democrats to pick off votes on less-friendly terrain. The good news for Trump is that the most recent poll, by Fox News, has him tied in Pennsylvania. But the four preceding polls of the state showed him trailing Clinton by anywhere from three to 13 points. Fox News didn’t ask about a Cruz–Clinton matchup, but Quinnipiac has Cruz and Clinton tied in Pennsylvania, while Clinton is ahead of Trump by three.

In state after state, Cruz runs better than Trump against the likely Democratic nominee.

Like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin is one of those potential swing states where Republicans have struggled to compete in recent presidential cycles. Even the presence of Paul Ryan on the ticket in 2012 only reduced Obama’s margin of victory from 14 points to seven. But Cruz is running surprisingly close there; the Emerson poll puts Clinton ahead of him by three points and the Marquette University survey has them tied. The two polls put Trump behind Clinton by ten points.

One of the biggest contrasts between the GOP candidates comes in Iowa. NBC News and PPP have Clinton ahead of Tump by eight points and two points respectively. The same polls put Cruz ahead of Clinton by four points and three points.

Perhaps one of the strongest arguments for nominating Cruz over Trump is that it would lock up states Republicans should never have had to worry about in the first place. The controversial mogul is so repugnant to some groups of traditionally Republican-leaning voters, he would put some previously deep-red states in play.

#related#A 28-point lead for Ted Cruz over Hillary Clinton in Utah is not particularly surprising — but it is noteworthy given that Clinton actually leads Trump by two in the latest poll of this conservative stronghold, which hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1964. Democrats have dreamed of turning Arizona into a swing state for years; the Merrill poll found Clinton tied with Trump there. The same poll showed Cruz leading Clinton by six points. In Mississippi, a Mason-Dixon poll put Trump ahead of Clinton, 46 percent to 43 percent. The same poll put Cruz ahead of her, 51 percent to 40 percent.

If Cruz’s strategy was such a sure loser, so devoid of appeal to anyone outside the conservative base, we might expect his head-to-head polling against Hillary Clinton to be as bad as Trump’s. But in state after state, Cruz runs better than Trump against the likely Democratic nominee. Perhaps this reflects Clinton’s persistently high disapproval numbers, or maybe Trump’s smash-mouth braggadocio makes Cruz look comparably warm and fuzzy. Either way, at this point, Cruz appears to have a legitimate shot against Clinton — not a great shot, but a shot. The same cannot be said of Trump. You do the math.

— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.

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