Ted Cruz is now the flavor of the week. He has risen dramatically in polls, both nationally and in key states like Iowa, and now many pundits are saying he’s the man to watch. Maybe so, but that vastly underestimates the challenge the very conservative senator from Texas still faces.
Cruz’s rise is almost entirely due to his finally getting strong levels of support among the most angry and the most conservative elements of the party. If they were the party, it would be looking pretty good for Ted. But they are not, and therein lies Cruz’s challenge. Call it the Cruz Ted bears.
The data are clear that Cruz is consolidating the party’s Tea Party and very conservative factions. Three national polls in November break Republicans into three ideological categories, dividing conservatives into “very” and “somewhat” conservatives. They all show Cruz’s support comes primarily from that first group. Quinnipiac has him with 27 percent among very conservatives, 7 percent among somewhat conservatives, and 6 percent among moderates. McClatchy/Marist has him at 21-8-5 among those three groups, and Public Policy Polling (PPP) has him at 29-10-1. The ideological right likes him a lot, while the center and the left of the Party are at best lukewarm towards him.
The same trends are evident if you break voters into Tea Party supporters and non-supporters. Quinnipiac has Cruz getting 30 percent of Tea Partiers compared with only 13 percent overall. PPP has him getting 26 percent of Tea Partiers but only 10 percent of those who say they are not.
These trends are even stronger in very conservative Iowa. The two most recent polls, Quinnipiac and CBS/YouGov, have Cruz getting 38 or 41 percent, respectively, among very conservatives. But his support drops precipitously among somewhat conservatives (17 or 11 percent), and falls off the cliff among moderates and liberals (6 or 3 percent). Here too the Tea Party provides Cruz with his base. Quinnipiac has him getting 42 percent of Tea Partiers; CBS/YouGov has him at 30; an earlier PPP poll had him at 34 percent. Cruz’s support among non-Tea Partying Republicans remains well under 15 percent.
Caucus states tend to have higher proportions of very conservative voters than do primaries, so Cruz is catering to the right group to win the Hawkeye State. But those trends are ominous for him in later, less conservative, states.
New Hampshire’s primary has long had one of the largest shares of moderates, and the smallest shares of very conservative voters, of any Republican contest. It should be no surprise, then, that Marco Rubio is running second there in the most recent polls. But Cruz’s problems extend to supposedly conservative South Carolina, too.
Cruz remains mired in fourth place in South Carolina according to the RealClearPolitics average. Despite his national surge, he finishes behind Marco Rubio in two of the last three polls. The reason is clear: Cruz is losing the center-left majority of the Gamecock State’s GOP voters.
Both CBS/YouGov and PPP show Cruz is strongest among very conservatives (19 or 23 percent), then among somewhat conservatives (14 percent in each), and runs terribly among moderates (2 or 5 percent). Moderates in both these polls and historically are about as large a share of the electorate as very conservatives. The result is that the somewhat conservative voter usually picks the winner, and Cruz’s 14 percent is just not good enough.
The same math applies nationally. Very conservative voters are only about a third of GOP voters nationwide. They are a larger share in the South, sometimes rising to about 40 percent, but they are less influential in the big delegate states in the Northeast, Midwest, and Pacific Coasts. Moderates may be only 25-30 percent nationally, but they are over 40 percent of the electorate in New England, New York, and New Jersey, and between a third and 40 percent in Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and California. Simply put, moderate resistance to Cruz will eventually cause him heartaches and pain once they stop splitting their vote between five candidates (Bush, Rubio, Kasich, Christie, Trump) and start to unite around the survivor.
Cruz could pull out the nomination if he, like every other recent nominee, wins at least narrowly among somewhat conservatives. But they remain lukewarm to him. Ominously, they are moving to Marco Rubio: Cruz trails Rubio among somewhat conservatives in all three national polls that break conservatives into these groups. Both South Carolina polls that do this also show Rubio ahead of Cruz among this decisive group.
Of course, Rubio’s “lead” at this stage is small: there are still fourteen candidates vying for the party’s crown. But PPP poll data suggest that these voters will move towards Rubio, not Cruz, were the race to – as many observers expect – narrow down to these two men.
Rubio led Cruz 43-38 in a hypothetical one-on-one matchup in PPP’s most recent national poll. As one would expect, Cruz crushes Rubio 58-30 among the very conservatives. But they are only a third of the vote; forty percent are somewhat conservative, and they back Rubio over Cruz by 49-34. The 27 percent who are either moderates or liberals back Rubio by 46-21 (moderates) or 70-14 (slightly liberals).
Cruz’s challenge will be to reverse this gap and convince somewhat conservatives that he is one of them. In doing so, however, Cruz will need to do more than appeal to ideology.
PPP asks a very unique and revealing question: which quality to you most value in a nominee, that he is the most conservative on the issues or that he is most likely to beat the Democrat? In both national and early state (Iowa, South Carolina) polls, somewhere between 30 and 37 percent choose “most conservative” and between 51 and 57 percent choose (most likely to win). Cruz’s support is just as heavily titled towards those who want the “most conservative” candidate as it is toward those who say they are either Tea Partiers or very conservative.
In the most recent national PPP poll, for example, Cruz gets 23 percent of the vote among voters who want the “most conservative” man. He gets only 11 percent among those who say they want the most electable person. Rubio’s support is the reverse of this trend. He gets 16 percent among those who want to win, and only 6 percent among those who want the most conservative.
The same pattern emerges when the two men are paired in their hypothetical one-on-one. Cruz wallops Rubio 52-29 among those who want the most conservative man, while Rubio wins 51-34 among those who want the winner and 40-20 among those who are not sure.
It’s tempting to say that this is a matter of the head, that once Cruz starts to win he will acquire “momentum” and thereby convince those who want to win that he is their guy. But I suspect this is more a matter of temperament, that the sort of Republicans who say they want to win first actually like a different type of Republican than the highly charged Cruz. These are the voters who either don’t like highly charged conservatism on principle (think the moderates) or they are the sort of conservatives who favor Mitch McConnell or John Boehner. They are seeing the same things the very conservative/Tea Partier who wants the most conservative in the race see, but draw a different conclusion.
One should not write Ted Cruz’s obituary quite yet. A month is forever in politics, and we have many more forevers to go before the nomination is decided. But as my forthcoming book shows, these factional trends within the GOP are longstanding and deep. Cruz isn’t done for by a long shot, but the path he has chosen to take is simply the harder one to climb if he wants to reach the GOP’s summit.