With Governor Jeb Bush floundering and Donald Trump leading the pack for the GOP nomination, many commentators have been fairly bullish on Senator Marco Rubio’s chances of winning the nomination. As oftentimes happens, commentators try to find patterns despite the chaos. In previous races, the contest has broken off into two lanes, one in which an establishment-backed candidate consolidates support and in another, a more conservative candidate does.
Lately, more and more of the coverage has been predicting that GOP primary will eventually be a showdown between establishment-favorite Marco Rubio, and the self-proclaimed outsider Senator Ted Cruz, duking it out in their respective lanes. While the often-discussed logic in Rubio’s chances is mostly in relation to the weaknesses of the field surrounding him, these arguments fail to address the many potential roadblocks to Rubio’s consolidation of the GOP establishment. In contrast, the complex strategy of Ted Cruz’s advantages going into the race has been less explored and the strength of his opposition overestimated.
There are several political implications that suggest Cruz will be in a far better position to consolidate the Republican Party’s right-wing than Rubio the establishment.
Early dropouts benefited Cruz
The Republican race suffered two early causalities that heavily benefited Cruz. Governor Rick Perry’s exit from the race significantly reduced the competition for Texas donors, which has likely contributed to Cruz’s strong fundraising numbers. Governor Scott Walker’s withdrawal freed up a lot of support among anti-establishment Republican voters. Cruz will benefit from these voters, who are angry at Beltway Republicans for overselling while under-delivering on their promises.
Ted Cruz is in the strongest position to consolidate conservative voters
Political and polling considerations aside, Ted Cruz is the strongest candidate to consolidate the conservative vote. Around 50% of the electorate claims to support candidates that have never been elected. However, while disillusioned voters are currently flirting with Donald Trump and Ben Carson, they are likely to move towards a more realistic candidate as Election Day draws closer. This trend can already be seen with Carson’s quick fall in the polls after being put under intense and completely justified scrutiny.
This, however, is no indication that Donald Trump or Ted Cruz supporters will wake up in February as Jeb Bush or Chris Christie supporters. This notion is supported by the research of Emory Professor Alan Abramowitz, whose book The Disappearing Center argues that “to be engaged is to be polarized.” These voters are engaged, they are angry, and they are unlikely to compromise.
This is where Cruz has the advantage of actual political experience over Trump and Carson. Cruz ran for office and in 2012 he won a very contentious statewide primary runoff in Texas fairly handedly with 56.8% of the vote. While he isn’t very popular among his fellow Senators, GOP voters love him. Cruz is an excellent speaker, has articulate policy positions, and while he will not woo many Democrats, he is a credible candidate.
Senator Cruz is in a good position to pick up Trump’s supporters since his rhetoric matches much of Trump’s on the issues that blue-collar Republican voters care about. In a new NBC/WSJ poll, voters were asked if the race came down to Bush, Carson, Cruz, Rubio, and Trump, who would they vote for? Instead of two lanes, it appears three have emerged: the Establishment, the Evangelicals, and the Trump/Blue Collar voters. Over 50% of Trump’s voters do not attend church regularly or have college degrees. While it is impossible to know where their support will ultimately land, in the past these types of voters have leaned more towards candidates like Cruz than candidates like Bush and Rubio.
In contrast, Senator Rubio lacks this advantage. His biggest rival, fellow Floridian candidate Jeb Bush, shows no sign of leaving the race despite his remarkably poor performance. If his father’s 1980 performance is any indication, Jeb could remain in the race until as late as May. Besides Jeb, there are several very capable establishment alternatives to Rubio, namely the formidable Governors Christie and Kasich, who both could pick up steam in a narrowed field. This all goes to say that there is little chance for Rubio to successfully consolidate his wing of the GOP before New Hampshire, while that is not the case for Cruz in Iowa.
As Cruz himself recently suggested when explaining his strategy, “Gravity will bring both of those campaigns [Trump and Carson’s] down…I think the lion’s share of their supporters come to us”. In recent weeks, the race appears to have begun to move that way as Cruz has now become Trump’s biggest competitor in Iowa. Even if Cruz fails to win Iowa, he will likely finish in the top three. After Iowa, Cruz should also do well in South Carolina due to his organization and the high number of evangelical voters in the state. From there, Cruz would go into the Super Tuesday/SEC Primary with at least two strong performances, if not outright wins.
Cruz is likely to have another strong performance across the SEC primary because of its contentious nature, and because he can still pick up delegates from states that award them proportionally. Even if Cruz doesn’t win every contest, he can still gain a considerable advantage over his opponents in both the insider and anti-establishment track. As the natural arch-conservative choice, he can rally support while Bush and Rubio fight over Florida, which holds its primary 15 days later.
It is critical for Cruz’s campaign to build enough support and delegates to become the frontrunner before March 15th because many of the primaries are in states in the Northeast and Midwest which are not only far less evangelical but also winner-take-all. With Cruz far less likely to win in those states, that rules change could serve as a firewall to his nomination.
Chaos is a ladder
The fractious nature of the GOP establishment benefits Cruz, who can focus on winning the far-right base without having to worry at this point about any attacks from an establishment rival. The Republican establishment’s failure to rally behind any one candidate, due to Bush’s weakness, Kasich’s liberal leanings, and Christie’s scandals, has left it in a position where it is unable to effectively counter the wave of anti-establishment fervor that is steadily becoming Cruz’s base of support. This allows Cruz to continue to make inroads among far-right voters, where a more unified GOP establishment would be in a better position to placate and co-opt those voters. This happened in 2012 when the establishment united behind the Romney campaign and he worked to de-legitimize outside contenders like Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, and after a longer fight, Santorum.
Despite the media’s bullish attitude towards Senator Rubio, he lacks many of the distinct advantages that Cruz does, and worse, his team is blatantly ignoring critical field operations and seems to lack a coherent strategy to win. Rubio has at least three major competitors who show little sign of dropping off before New Hampshire, while Cruz’s main rivals, Trump and Carson, are likely to run out of steam as the primary season approaches. Cruz should be able to consolidate the conservative voter base, slowly becoming a more legitimate candidate, while Rubio still has to compete with Bush, Christie, and Kasich for establishment votes, endorsements, and fundraising dollars. While it is too early to say with certainty that Cruz has a lock, these advantages give him a real shot at winning the nomination. At the end of the day, it is not assured that Ted Cruz will be the Republican nominee, even less likely that he will be President, but everything points towards Cruz being the “outsider” alternative to whichever candidate ultimately emerges from the establishment.