Senator Ted Cruz announced over the weekend that he would run for President, and the liberal internet has by and large taken the opportunity to laugh at Cruz, because Ted Cruz’s positions are utterly crazy and should (in theory) make winning a presidential election extremely difficult. But I have a problem with this, and the problem is simple: I think it is in fact more than possible for Cruz to win the Republican primary, and possibly even the general election. Allow me to explain:
The path to victory for Cruz in the GOP primaries was blazed by Rick Santorum in 2012. In that election, Santorum came much closer to winning the GOP primary than he had any right to do; in retrospect everybody likes to pretend that Mitt Romney was an inevitability based on money, but in February of the 2012 campaign Santorum had reasonable momentum and even through March still had a decent shot at stealing the nomination from Romney. Romney eventually sealed it up in April, but Santorum had a real shot, and had a real shot because the base didn’t like Mitt Romney. The wackaloon psychotic base of the GOP is still the one tried and tested route to potentially stealing the nomination from the money men.
Now consider: Santorum was and is crazier than Cruz by a longshot, as well as being a less gifted public speaker and, to be frank, much stupider than Cruz. (Cruz is not stupid. He’s a highly intelligent ideological extremist. There is a difference between that and, say, Newt Gingrich, who attempts to be an intellectual and fails miserably.) Santorum had next to no campaign funding; Cruz will better him. Cruz also has the benefit of being Latino, which will insulate him from a lot of the entirely valid criticism of stock GOP racism that other lily-white candidates always have trouble with. Cruz won’t have to deal with Santorum’s issue of inconvenient Senate votes that made him look maybe-sorta-moderate (something Romney hammered Santorum on in the debates and which was reasonably effective) because Cruz has voted ideologically for pretty much the entirety of his Senate career. Cruz doesn’t have any really big scandals attached to him that can derail his campaign; there are no Bain Capitals waiting to take him down, and likely no aggrieved sexually harassed ex-staffers either.1 With Cruz, the crazy you see is the crazy you get.
And Santorum was essentially the base’s last-ditch choice as the anti-Mitt, following the electoral collapses of Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann and Newt Gingrich, largely because of all the reasons I just mentioned, along with the flop-sweat loser-stink Santorum wore like perfume – whereas Ted Cruz is at this point arguably the base’s poster boy. The GOP base loves Ted Cruz. He’s their first choice and it isn’t even close. And that matters.
Look at the electoral battleground that’s coming and pay attention to the candidates who are already faltering: all those governors and potential moderate candidates are collapsing already. (Chris Christie will never even sniff the nomination, let alone the Presidency.) They’re doing this because getting the backing of the GOP money men is widely (and not unfairly) considered to be the real battle in Republican electoral politics.2 Most of that money is probably going to go to Jeb Bush or Scott Walker (with Rick Perry and Rand Paul fighting over the remainder).
Ted Cruz isn’t stupid: he knows he can’t out-fundraise Bush or Walker. But Bush and Walker will each likely view one another as the biggest threat to the other’s campaign. This happens in every hotly contested political primary: the two richest candidates attack each other and everybody else scrambles for attention. Ted Cruz has likely decided that his best chance to ever be President is to snake up the middle – to try and use his megapopularity with the GOP base to snag a few early primary victories while Bush and Walker are trying to buy them. Once Cruz has a few won states under his belt, the money will inevitably start drifting his way – not in a rush, but he’ll have enough to stay afloat. (Remember, Rick Santorum competed against Romney using about 1/5th the money.)
Now, granted, Bush or Walker – probably only one of them becomes the GOP money wing’s candidate, and I would bet on Bush because Walker’s money and popularity is in much more direct competition with Cruz – will try to outspend Cruz and win the primaries that way, and of course it might well work.
But we aren’t talking certainties here either way. Ted Cruz has a real shot at winning the GOP nomination, and he announced his campaign this early precisely because now he can set up advance offices in all the early primary states – he has announced before Bush or Walker or any of them because he’s going to run a grassroots campaign to try and win those early states, and if you’re running a grassroots campaign you need to start the work as early as possible and not mess around with exploratory committees.3 So far he’s doing exactly what he should be doing.
The general election
Okay, so let’s pre-suppose that Cruz wins the GOP primary. At this point the prevailing theory is that he can’t beat Hillary Clinton – or whoever the Democrats put forward, but let’s be honest, barring an unlikely asteroid strike it’s going to be Hillary Clinton. The craziness that makes him stand a real chance of winning the GOP nomination is exactly what keeps him from winning the general.
The problem with this theory is that Presidential elections in the United States are a binary affair (your Vermin Supremes aside). If Ted Cruz is the only realistic alternative to Hillary Clinton that voters have… well, he’s the only realistic alternative that voters have. We talk a lot about how Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 over John McCain and Mitt Romney were mudhole-stompings and about the new Democratic coalition and demographic truths and what have you, but the truth is Obama only won each of those elections by a few percentage points.
Now: Hillary’s perceived electoral strength relies largely on the Democratic coalition all being happy to vote for her, or at least willing, and there are plenty of Dem voters who might grudgingly check their ballots for her but aren’t wildly thrilled to vote for her. Lots of voters who want the first woman President would prefer Elizabeth Warren. Lots of liberals think Clinton is a centrist who won’t make things better. Lots of Democratic men are probably being, well, men.
All it takes is one big mistake and Hillary goes from being the presumptive President to being in a dogfight. And here are two truths about Hillary Clinton: first, she’s a serviceable campaigner at best who tends to trust the wrong people when it comes to campaign management, which is why Barack Obama is President right now. And second, the media by and large haaaaaates her, always has, and they’ll be looking for opportunities to take her down, both out of dislike and because any successful Clinton trip to the Presidency will be a boring story and they hate that even worse. Clinton’s campaign will not be a boring one, because the press will not let it be a boring one.
And Cruz probably has one final benefit to running in 2016, which is that the GOP money men kept a lot of their powder dry in 2012 precisely because they suspected Obama wouldn’t lose as an incumbent President – and in 2012 the Dems outspent the GOP, but only to the tune of ten percent more money. In 2016? Who knows how much the GOP elites will spend to get back in the White House and nominate a few conservative Supreme Court judges to safely replace Scalia (79) and Kennedy (78) – or worse, Breyer (74) or Ginsburg (82)? I would bet on it being a lot – and the Presidential election can be swung by money, because it almost always is.
To be sure: Ted Cruz’ chances of winning the Presidency should he win the election are low. But they are not negligible and his personally crazy positions will not, by and large, interfere with his opportunity to win the Presidency. He’s only a joke once his campaign ends in ignominy. Before then, he’s a threat – and should be considered a serious one.
- Well, it’s always possible. But as a general rule, politicians aren’t that good at hiding it when they fuck around or grope unwantedly; they have a reputation in advance, like Herman Cain or John Edwards did. [↩]
- To be fair, it’s very much the same for the Democrats. Hillary Clinton is the presumptive nominee because the Democratic money has all decided she’s either the one or she’s not so bad to raise a primary fight over her. [↩]
- Exploratory committees are for candidates who want to know exactly how much rich-people money they’ll have to work with. [↩]