Debate Recap: Tactical Ted

December 16, 2015

Ted Cruz is a strategist.  He’s likely planned for this ever since he was an undergrad.  Some people see this as a negative, politicians shouldn’t be so overt in their maneuvering.  Others like the idea of having a tactician at the helm for the fall campaign.

Either way, it makes him an interesting candidate to follow.  While we’re forced to guess what Marco Rubio is up to and often don’t know how to absorb all that is The Donald, Cruz often telegraphs his next move.

At the moment, he’s doing his level best to consolidate Tea Party conservatives, evangelical conservatives and libertarian conservatives, while leaving himself open to accept incoming Trumpists.

This is working.  Scott Walker is gone.  Rick Perry is gone.  Bobby Jindal is gone.  Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, exiled.  Rand Paul is marginalized.  Same for Carly Fiorina.

The only remaining target in his space is Ben Carson.  The majority of Cruz’s polling improvement came at his expense, but there’s another 7-12% there depending on the state.

Carson isn’t terribly far from his floor, while he likely didn’t reverse his slide with yesterday’s debate performance, there’s no reason for his committed supporters to abandon him before actual voting begins.

With Carson’s strongest support being the people who most buy in to his character, biography and general dignity, the odds of Trump eventually picking up the majority of these voters is slim.

If Chris Christie makes a big push as the establishment alternative, something that could happen if he finishes well ahead of Rubio in New Hampshire, these voters have nowhere to go besides Cruz.

At the moment, this really looks like an eventual 3-way race.  The magic number is 40.  If a candidate has approximately that percentage of consolidated national support, they will win the majority of states.

Though the establishment detests Cruz, if he wins 28 states and has a clear delegate lead, the party will not block him at the convention, even if he reaches Cleveland short of 1236 first ballot delegates.

Republicans will need Trump voters to turn out next November. Trying to nominate Rubio over Cruz if he finished clearly behind him during the primaries is a non-starter.

Even if Trump stays very strong, Cruz can still beat him.  He’s in the enviable position of being more acceptable to Trump voters than Rubio and more acceptable to Rubio voters than Trump.

He knows that regardless of what Mitch McConnell thinks, the average solidly conservative primary voter will have no trouble opting for him to block Trump if it seems Rubio can’t make it.  As long as Cruz stays ahead of Rubio, it almost doesn’t matter what Trump does.

So, Cruz HAS to attack Rubio, as he did yesterday.  Mind you, Rubio targeted Cruz in between debates for the same reason.  If he can prevent Cruz from getting early wins, it gives him time to consolidate enough of the party to get a plurality of delegates.

It makes perfect sense for both Cruz and Rubio to focus on each other and mostly ignore Trump.  Cruz wants to keep those voters in play, Rubio has nothing to gain by squabbling with The Donald.

At this point, Ted is playing defense.  He has a path to the presidency as long as everything stays as/is.  I don’t mean that he needs each of six different things to happen in order to get elected; that’s Christie.

I mean he’s currently the candidate most likely to become the 45th President of the United States unless somebody stops him.  This still leaves him at less than 50/50 today, but his odds are the best.

Conventional wisdom is he’d struggle in a general election.  I don’t agree.  He’s by no means guaranteed to win, but we saw General Election Ted in the third debate.  It’s both how he built momentum for his current position and exactly what he’d sound like with the nomination in hand.

If President Obama is at/near 45% approval rating on Election Day, a generic GOP candidate is favored.  The economy is looking about as good as it has at any point in the last decade and he’s currently at 43%.

Trying to predict approval ratings 300+ days in the future are a fool’s errand, but it sure seems like there are more things that would push his number down (or keep it where it is) than up.

Expect Cruz (if nominated) to do the following:

  1. Make a huge push to turn out disaffected Tea Party and Trump voters.  Many turned out for W in 2004 but haven’t shown up since.  If Cruz can close the gap between educated and non-educated white turnout, it makes an enormous difference.
  2. Repeatedly draw a link between Obama/Clinton policies and results over the past several years for single women and minorities.  It doesn’t mean he’ll get the majority of these voters, but Hillary needs them and high turnout among them.
  3. Reach out to African-American ministers.  Trump was first on this and it’s tremendously smart.  Cruz has a Baptist minister for a dad.  Overtly doing this both increases the chance of reaching at least 10-12% of the black vote, especially combined with #2.

If you use the models at Real Clear Politics or FiveThirtyEight and tweak the demographics to match the above scenario, even if Hillary rallies Latinos and suburban moms, the math is still better for Ted.  Much can happen between now and then, but he’s not an underdog.

If you’re suitably convinced Cruz has a good shot in November, the next step is deciding if he could beat Trump head-to-head.  I think that’s not a particularly tough mental project.

The people who are most skeptical of Cruz tend to hate Trump.  Ted has higher favorable and lower unfavorable ratings.  He hasn’t spent time in the 21st century as a pro-choice Democrat like The Donald.  You can safely assume respected conservatives like Utah Senator Mike Lee would endorse Cruz.

We already did the math on the 3-way race.  That leaves Cruz-Rubio.  He’s not going to out-establishment Marco, especially when Rubio is doing his best to mix in insurgent language and knows he’ll get a free pass to do what he needs to block Cruz and Trump.

Two ways to take Rubio down.  The first is to keep him out of the finals by helping Christie become the center-right alternative.  Among voters likely to favor Rubio, some are looking for a non-crazy, electable option, others really would prefer a younger, conservative nominee.

If Rubio doesn’t perform strongly in Iowa or New Hampshire, while Christie either wins the Granite State or is the top-non Trump, those who are looking for a winner may prefer Christie.

Even if he doesn’t immediately supplant Rubio, merely sticking around with a pulse makes it almost impossible for Marco to get an early win.  To many voters considering Cruz and Rubio, this would tip them toward Ted.

In this scenario, within the following couple weeks, either the two establishment-approved choices cancel each other out, giving Cruz his duel with Trump, or Ted gets to face Christie instead.

Christie is both less of an option than Rubio for some Cruz comsiderers and more of an alternative for Trump’s voters, those who like bluster and don’t care about conservative apostasy.  Advantage: Ted.

If Rubio beats Christie (and the other governors) in New Hampshire, he gets an automatic pass forward.  In that case, Cruz needs to set the center of gravity to his side of things rather than Rubio’s, giving him the advantage head-to-head or including Trump.

No matter how you look at it, neutralizing Rubio is the most important step for Cruz between Iowa and Cleveland.

Working backwards, time to examine Iowa, where Cruz currently leads the majority of recent polls.  You’ll notice I’ve taken the liberty of assuming Cruz would have an edge over Trump, even though The Donald holds a noticeable national polling advantage.

This requires a Cruz victory in Iowa.  It is his best opportunity to finish ahead of Trump as long as there are more than two candidates in the race.  In order to virtually guarantee this, Ted needs to grab at least 30-33% of the vote.

Trump would need beyond record levels of turnout to best that number.  Even the Iowa polls more favorable to The Donald usually show him in the upper 20s.  If Cruz can hold what he has today, he’s in really good shape.

Carson voters aren’t strongly interventionist and are anti-immigration.  Ted covered both of these yesterday.  If he can grab a few more voters great, but he mostly needs to avoid losing anyone back.

At one time Carly Fiorina held voters now with Cruz in Iowa.  They moved when Ted seemed more viable.  In engaging Rubio and becoming a focus during the debate, he helped keep Carly marginalized.

With the knowledge he can pivot later, Cruz will remain focused on Iowa (most of the same rhetoric works in many of the March 1 states), taking an advantage of being a better natural fit than Rubio.

After openly discussing a presidential run mere months after reaching the Senate, Cruz is now tantalizingly close to realizing what seemed an absurd ambition to many.

Plenty can throw him off course, but the dominos are all lined up and ready to fall.  It may seem like Cruz is being bold, but those brave acts are in the past.  Now he’s trying to run out the clock.  What looks like offense is actually defense.






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