There’s a trope in election writing that you can summarize with a cliché: “The only poll that matters is Election Day.” The idea is that politics are contingent and that it’s foolish to assume outcomes and make predictions. Anything could happen, goes the argument, so we should be modest in our prophecies.
But this isn’t true. While there’s a lot we can’t predict in politics, we have enough data to make strong estimates about the future and to rule out certain outcomes. We can’t say if Hillary Clinton will win the presidency, but we can confidently predict that former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley won’t be the Democratic nominee.
Which brings us to Sen. Ted Cruz. On Monday, I made a definitive prediction that Cruz would lose the Republican nomination fight and thus the race for the Oval Office. Writing for National Review, Kevin Williamson sneers at this (and similar) arguments, asserting three points: that Cruz could win the White House if he were the nominee; that the field is fluid, and anyone could be the nominee (“In football, any team can win on any given Sunday; in politics, any candidate can win on any given Tuesday”); and that history gives us a precedent for a Cruz victory—Ronald Reagan.
Williamson is right to say Cruz could win if he were the nominee, but that’s a truism. By definition, anyone who wins a major party nomination has a great chance of becoming president. The question that matters is whether the Republican Party would ever agree on Cruz for the nomination. And the answer is almost certainly no.
Reagan is instructive. Williamson cites him as an example of how predictions like mine can fail:
“Reagan can’t win, Ford says.” That’s the 1976 version. The 1980 New York Times version, with the nearly identical headline: “Ford Declares Reagan Can’t Win.” Ford was really quite sure of himself: “Every place I go, and everything I hear, there is a growing, growing sentiment that Governor Reagan cannot win the election.” New York magazine: “The reason Reagan can’t win … . ” “Preposterous,” sociologist Robert Coles wrote about the idea of a Reagan victory. […]
Things have a funny way of working out differently than expected.
It’s not a bad example. In both election years—1976 and 1980—Reagan was an unabashed candidate of ideological conservatives, with close ties to the then-nascent religious right and a new band of conservative thinkers who wanted sharp cuts to federal taxes and government spending. To the moderate wing of the Republican Party, he was outside the mainstream, an insensible alternative to establishment figures like Howard Baker and George H.W. Bush.
The problem is that Cruz and Reagan occupy vastly different spots in the party. Reagan was a right-wing icon turned two-term governor of California, then, as now, one of the largest and most politically influential states in the union. By 1976, he was the undisputed leader of the conservative movement and the consensus choice for a challenge to President Ford. By the time of the 1980 primary, he had grown his intraparty coalition, moderating just enough to attract broad support in the Republican Party. He was sufficiently mainstream for the establishment, with deep conservative support buoying him in crucial primary states.
Cruz has none of this. He’s a young senator with few accomplishments to his name, which wouldn’t be a problem (See: Barack Obama or even Marco Rubio) if he were popular among party elites. But it’s the opposite; Cruz is deeply unpopular with a huge range of Republican lawmakers, donors, activists, and other party figures. This matters. In 2007, Hillary Clinton was dominant, but a young Sen. Barack Obama was popular enough with anti-Hillary Democrats that he could tap into their networks and begin the hard process of rallying other “establishments” to his side. An Obama who doesn’t have help from then–Majority Leader Harry Reid or the late Sen. Ted Kennedy is an Obama with a much smaller shot at success.
Maybe Cruz could persuade these figures if he were the only conservative in the race. But as John Podhoretz notes for the New York Post, the 2016 Republican primary field is among “the most conservative in a philosophical sense” that the party has seen. “It is a mark of just how conservative,” he writes, “that Jeb Bush, universally considered the country’s most right-wing governor upon his retirement from his post in Florida in 2007, has somehow been transmuted into the race’s ‘moderate.’ ”
Why should other Republicans, angry and alienated by Cruz’s unpopular and self-defeating legislative crusades, rally to the Texas senator’s cause? Why should they lend him staff or connect him to donors when there are conservative alternatives who don’t have his attitude and unpredictability?
Without serious party support, it is incredibly hard to win a nomination. Still, it’s possible if you command a large base and have a huge pool of money. But so far Cruz is among the least popular of Republican hopefuls, and there’s no indication he has the cash to compete with Sen. Rand Paul or Ben Carson, much less Jeb Bush or Rubio.
Even with all of these obstacles, there’s a nonzero chance of Cruz winning (although there’s a nonzero chance of almost anything you can imagine). But it would require a complete upending of everything we know about nomination politics. Presidential nominations are less about the candidates and far more about the party and its various groups and interests. As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein writes for Bloomberg:
Groups and individuals within the party figure out what they want to fight for (and against) and what is expendable or just lip service, and they find out what all the other groups and individuals in the party care about. They eventually cut deals, or fight it out, or form new coalitions—these actors define the party.
“Part of that process,” he continues, “involves binding the nominee to the party. Candidates win by aligning themselves with the winning coalition, and they do so largely by pledging to bring the party network into their administrations.”
Is Cruz aligned with the strongest coalition? Is he acceptable to other party factions? Does he have sufficient elite support? So far, the answer to all of those questions is no. He’s too unpredictable for stalwarts, too strident for pragmatists, and too extreme for those with more moderate demeanors. Far from Reagan ’80 or even Reagan ’76, he’s Pat Robertson in 1988—a niche candidate with just a little room for growth.
If you need an analog to Reagan, your best bet is in Wisconsin, where Scott Walker—a two-term governor and conservative icon with strong ties to elites and activists—has all the attributes of the kind of candidate who wins.