December 24, 2015
As we end 2015, Ted Cruz is winning the contrast with his erstwhile rival Marco Rubio. Snapshot in time and all those qualifiers, but voters who would consider either are now leaning Ted.
This is separate from their respective projects to eliminate other opponents. Cruz has made noticeable progress over the past 6-8 weeks locking down conservatives and evangelicals.
Especially in Iowa, but also nationally, his numbers are up and Ben Carson, his most direct immediate competition appears neutralized. Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum may never get off the ground.
Meanwhile, Rubio is slowly leaking support nationally and in Iowa. In New Hampshire, Chris Christie is resurgent and Jeb Bush and John Kasich, while lacking a national path are causing Marco more problems than Huckabee and Santorum are for Cruz in Iowa.
We’ve previously covered why it was more urgent for Cruz to clear his side of the field than Rubio. As long as Marco gets around to it by March 15, he’s probably ok. Watching his approach is frustrating from the outside, but there’s logic to it.
However, that strategy is predicated on being able to compete with Cruz for solidly conservative mainstream voters. Rubio and Cruz both realize establishment voters are likely outnumbered this year.
If Rubio focuses on locking down the establishment side, he’s a guaranteed final three contender, but the nomination math is tough. By stalling and keeping himself closer to the middle, he risks getting upended early, but increases his chances of winning outright before the convention or being a legit compromise at it.
This is all contingent on splitting strong secular conservatives with Cruz. He can afford having Ted do better with evangelicals. Voters who are more Tea Party, less GOP are going to prefer Cruz too.
With Donald Trump sticking around for the foreseeable eternity, and pulling a bunch of non-establishment voters who are a bit more moderate, Rubio needs a lot of the strong secular conservatives.
Cruz has begun looking more and more plausible to these voters, the ones who will ultimately likely wind up on the nominating side. Rubio has attempted a couple angles of attack.
First, he’s tried to make Cruz look weak on national security due to his non-interventionist leanings. Whether defense spending, or collecting metadata, Rubio wants to frame Ted as Rand Paul-lite.
The two jousted during the debate and have gone back and forth in the media. I’ll offer a couple of stats to show who seems to have benefitted:
Latest CNN/ORC national poll. Which candidate would best handle ISIS?
It’s safe to say Rubio’s first salvo missed the target. Three weeks before, CNN showed Cruz ahead 15/8 on the same measure.
Cruz also scores slightly higher on who is qualified to be president. At the moment, the voters they are both chasing prefer Ted’s combination of strong rhetoric and limited troop commitment to Marco’s more measured but also more complete strategy.
While you might think a traditional Reaganite conservative would prefer Rubio’s approach, the Gipper himself was very wary of committing troops and had a bad experience in Lebanon when he did.
Whether or not you think it realistic, Cruz is offering an antidote to Bush 43 over-commitment and Obama under-commitment.
Cruz seems stronger. He’s more declarative, looks older and is taller. When Rubio talks about national security, he’s very informed, but doesn’t have the same power behind his words as when he talks about the American Dream.
If Rubio is a generationally great communicator, he’ll adjust over the next couple of weeks and start gaining ground back. If not, Cruz has an important advantage.
Gravis Marketing just released a new Iowa poll. They aren’t as respected as the Ann Selzer, and we shouldn’t take any individual reading as gospel when each pollster chooses a different scenario.
But we can very safely measure against what Gravis found when polling on Halloween.
That’s a shift. Cruz has picked up the greatest amount of support from Ben Carson abandoners, but at least in Iowa, he’s grabbed some of the above mentioned strong secular conservatives from Rubio.
It appears this is due in part to Rubio’s attack backfiring. Cruz’s general momentum in the Hawkeye State helps too. People like a winner and both candidates are generally satisfactory to many.
However, a similar trend is afoot in New Hampshire. If this holds, not only will Rubio not find the votes to do well there, but Cruz has a good chance of finishing ahead of Marco in both early states.
The second anti-Cruz initiative will take longer to measure. Rubio is actively working to make Ted look inauthentic. Smart move for multiple reasons.
It plays into existing skepticism of Cruz as a calculating opportunist. It creates a narrative that will increase scrutiny on the new Iowa front runner, making Cruz need to watch his pitch more carefully.
Most importantly, if he can convince voters he and Cruz are fairly equally conservative, it’s just Ted has built a particular and somewhat false image, then why not vote for the more electable guy.
Your average strong secular conservative follows the Buckley Rule. Choose the most conservative candidate who can still win. Absent a credible true conservative, this voter will grudgingly vote for Mitt Romney in a primary, but would prefer not to.
The 2012 GOP primary was all about this failed search. Without Cruz, Rubio would have these voters fairly well captured. If they think Cruz is both more reliable and fairly electable, many, way too many for Marco, will pick Ted.
But, as he’s attempted on immigration, if Marco can show there is little real difference, these mostly pragmatic voters will generally opt for the candidate with less general election risk, even if Cruz seems like he might win.
Rubio has primed the pump on this one, but will need others to carry the mission forward. The media will do plenty of digging.
Stories are out comparing Ted’s language at a recent private NYC fundraiser when he said he wasn’t going to focus on gay marriage to what his evangelical voters might prefer to hear from him.
It’s going to take more than that to make a dent. Cruz is careful. His tone changes depending on the audience much more than his positions.
But with several candidates desperately needing to make a dent in Iowa, this creates a way for opponents to put Cruz on defense.
While waiting on this, Marco can go back to the drawing board on his national security pitch. Something is still a little off.
We end 2015 advantage Cruz. Let’s see what January brings.