December 14, 2015
Several candidates have a mathematical chance of winning the nomination. With the possible exception of the omnipresent Mr. Trump, two 44-year-old first-term senators with law degrees born to Cuban immigrants are the most likely winners.
Despite the surface similarities, they aren’t clones. Cruz was better at school. Rubio is friendlier. Cruz’s wife makes good money, Rubio’s mostly stays at home, so one has a good asset base while the other answers questions about his credit cards.
This extends to the campaigns as Rubio has struggled to raise money. Though he’s recently hooked a few mega fish, Cruz leads in both direct and PAC funding and has a much larger base of individual donors.
Cruz attended Princeton and Harvard, clerked for then-Chief Justice Rehnquist, worked on the 2000 Bush campaign, served in the administration, and pitches himself as the ultimate insurgent.
Rubio attended a school nobody has heard of in Missouri before transferring to the University of Florida and likely needing a favor or two to attend law school at the University of Miami (a good school, though no ivy among the palm trees).
He worked his way from municipal government to state government and supported outsider Mike Huckabee in 2008. So naturally, the comparatively plebeian Rubio is now the establishment guy.
Both claim the conservative mantle and each have a point. If nominated, either would be the most conservative nominee since Barry Goldwater. If you adjust for rightward inflation over the years, the seemingly more liberal Rubio might only match Ronald Reagan.
Cruz says Rubio is soft on immigration. He has mentioned this repeatedly over the past few weeks as the impending Duel of the Cubans has become more likely. Partnering with Chuck Schumer on legislation isn’t usually a path to GOP glory.
In response, Rubio has hit Cruz on metadata collection and voting to limit what the NSA can access. Pre-Paris/San Bernardino, there were decent sized constituencies on both sides of the argument, but now Rubio is probably on safer turf. This will come up during the debate too.
Another guaranteed flash point is how to respond to ISIS and where (if anywhere) to send troops. Rubio is a clear interventionist who thinks America has a dog in the Syrian fight. Cruz is more circumspect in advocating for intervention, with or without boots on the ground.
Rubio is friendly and charismatic so he doesn’t seem like a warmonger. Cruz is bold and willing to mix things up in the Senate, so people don’t think he’s being chicken by wanting to avoid foreign entanglements.
Rubio wants more money for defense and laments the post-sequestration state of the military. Cruz voted against a bunch of military funding bills.
In general, Cruz is more of a cut spending, move to a flat tax, audit the Fed fiscal libertarian/conservative, while Rubio is more pro-growth, lower tax rate, feed the military, post-Reagan GOP orthodox. At a minimum, the difference in defense funding will come up.
Rubio gets along with his fellow senators (a few of whom have endorsed him), but hasn’t accomplished much, sometimes doesn’t show up and isn’t running for re-election. Cruz’s colleagues are happy when he doesn’t show up and would love for him to opt against running to retain his seat in 2018.
Figure someone (like Trump) brings this up too. As you can see, there are plenty of points of contrast here. A large amount of Republicans are on each side of each argument. For many, they are with Cruz on some, Rubio on others.
One thing they have in common is much higher than average favorability ratings among Republicans. Cruz is now often the most popular, Rubio the least unpopular.
It’s probably easiest for Rubio to rally most of the party. Cruz has a stronger path and actually leads in an early state. Rubio is the favorite of mainstream conservatives, Cruz of strong conservatives. Trump does much better with moderates than either.
Where Trump dominates with less-educated voters, Cruz and Rubio are equally strong with college grads. Rubio consistently does better in pseudo-matchups with Hillary Clinton, but not by an amount safely outside the margin of error.
Which, if either of these men gets nominated has more to do with what each do building from their existing record and positions than what they’ve done so far.
Cruz has the better traditional infrastructure. He has more boots in the ground and has done more campaign events. Yet, he will now start facing extreme scrutiny as a real threat to win the nomination.
If he fails to win, it may turn out he peaked too soon, putting a bulls-eye on his back for Trump, the media and other candidates to target. Now that Cruz is ahead in Iowa, by 10 points according to the respected Ann Selzer, a strong second will now look like a disappointment.
If Ben Carson halts his slide and grabs a few voters back, while Iowa-centric evangelical-friendly candidates like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum begin targeting Cruz in an attempt to get their 2008 and 2012 voters back, he could take some hits.
As strong as Cruz looks (and is) today as a favorite of Iowa conservatives and evangelicals, the same was true of Scott Walker several months ago. He will have opponents coming at him from multiple sides all at once.
While a much stronger presidential-level communicator than Walker, it won’t be easy. If he can survive the gauntlet of the next 90-100 days, Hillary Clinton should not relish a contest with Ted.
Though Cruz may find himself over-exposed as soon as tomorrow, Rubio is confounding state-level insiders by remaining in his shell as long as possible. If he fails to win, blame will likely land on waiting too long to get going.
He doesn’t (yet) have the risk of a lower than expected finish in Iowa or New Hampshire, but also isn’t leading in any early voting state. In most polls, he’s not a particularly close second either.
Rubio has done fewer events in Iowa or New Hampshire than the majority of candidates. He’s neither as visible as national candidates Cruz, Carson, and Trump, nor single-state focused like most of the others.
With the exception of being more interventionist than many (though in line with Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina), many of Rubio’s policy positions are roughly indistinguishable from a generic GOP candidate.
While this makes him broadly acceptable, it puts the burden of standing out on his debate skill and overall affability, the latter of which isn’t a bonus to some voters.
Before he can worry about Cruz, he needs to start finishing ahead of Trump. Before he has the votes to do that, he needs to consolidate establishment voters by winning somewhere. To do that, he needs to take a few votes from Cruz (each is sometimes the second choice of the other’s supporters)
Rubio’s path starts and finishes with Cruz and the journey begins tomorrow. He has the advantage of making Ted his primary target tomorrow, while Cruz has to deal with most of the stage.
On the other hand, Cruz is currently holding more voters and they are distributed more efficiently. We’ll soon find out if either or both are generational political talents or just seemingly promising younger candidates.
A few months from now, we’ll know for sure, but tomorrow should provide a solid preview.