MANCHESTER, New Hampshire—Sen. Ted Cruz, in prime position to serve as the Republican Party’s most conservative presidential nominee since Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1964, makes precisely one pander to the supposedly more moderate Republican primary voters of New Hampshire. You know it’s a pander because he openly tells the crowd it’s a pander.
“How ’bout those Patriots?” he opened on Sunday evening at the Pasta Loft, a restaurant abutting the postcard-perfect central green of Milford, to roaring approval following the team’s Saturday playoff win. “And by the way, for the record: Tom Brady was framed.”
“I’m not willing to pander on much,” he joked. “But on that? Tom Brady was framed, and I have it on good authority that Hillary Clinton was responsible.” This was neither the first nor the last time that Cruz would use this joke.
From there, Cruz jumped into roughly the same stump speech that he gives everywhere, whether it’s Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, or Mars. It is a comprehensive wish list of conservative activists’ ideological goals, structured into two tiers: items he will execute on “day one,” and those he will achieve “in the days that follow.”
On the first day of his triumphant administration, Cruz would “rescind every single illegal and unconstitutional executive action” taken by his Oval Office predecessor, “instruct the U.S. Department of Justice to open an investigation into Planned Parenthood and these horrible videos,” “instruct the Department of Justice, and the IRS, and every other federal agency, that the persecution of religious liberties ends today,” “rip to shreds this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal,” and “begin the process of moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, the once and eternal capital.”
“In the days that follow,” he would repeal Obamacare in its entirety, instruct the Department of Education to end Common Core before eliminating itself, defund sanctuary cities, build a border wall, obliterate the “alphabet soup” of regulatory agencies, torch the tax code and replace it with a flat tax through which returns can be filed on a postcard, and … well, if it’s something that’s been muttered by one attendee to another at a conservative conference at any point in the last 50 years, Cruz intends to enact it.
Nowhere, in either his prepared stump speech to New Hampshire voters or his responses to their questions, do you hear a single concession to New England–style moderate Republicanism—to the extent that it still exists.
Insofar as winning the nomination goes, this is both necessary and strategic. You can’t really get away with regional pandering anymore in this national media environment. Were Cruz, or any other candidate, to whisper one thing in the ears of New Hampshire voters and another to South Carolina voters, there would be an approximately 10-second gap between his delivery and a comprehensive media, activist, and operative assault on his chief selling point: airtight conservative trustworthiness.
Fortunately, not bothering to develop a tailored message for Northern moderates is something that the unique size and makeup of this primary field allows him to get away with. Nearly all New Hampshire polling in recent weeks has shown the same static picture: Trump is out front with roughly 30 percent of the vote, followed by a five-way tie for second between Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. John Kasich, Gov. Chris Christie, Cruz, and Jeb Bush. If you only listened to Cruz, you would not know that Kasich, Christie, and Bush are even running for president, so rarely does he ever mention their names. The only use he has for them in New Hampshire—and it’s an important one—is to split the moderate vote among themselves, thereby allowing Cruz to land a first- or second-place finish.
To consolidate the conservative vote in New Hampshire—and elsewhere—Cruz needs to draw support from the pools of potential votes he shares with Trump and Rubio. Trump’s base of support is usually described alternately as “white working-class” or “sub-college educated,” but the real prevailing ideological belief among Trump supporters is a belief in Trump himself. That includes many conservatives that Cruz is suddenly, and aggressively, trying to poach. Rubio straddles the party’s conservative-moderate divide, a position that’s won him so many fans among assorted Republican operatives, pundits, and other poobahs with an eye on the general election. But Rubio’s crossover appeal to conservatives and moderates so far has translated into few first-choice commitments from either conservative or moderate voters. Cruz wants Rubio’s conservative votes, and he’ll try to get them by pointing out the plays Rubio has made for moderate votes.
Cruz is confident that comparisons of his record to either Trump’s or Rubio’s will draw conservative votes his way. In Milford, one woman asked Cruz how she should convince “a family member who supports Donald Trump” to stop doing so.
“Let me give you a very simple question that I would suggest you pose to them,” Cruz, licking his chops, began. “Have you ever been burned by a politician? Have you ever seen a politician who says one thing and does another? And every one of us has seen that, we’ve seen that over and over and over again. It’s why we’re frustrated out of our minds.”
“In a Republican primary,” he continued, “everyone says they’re a conservative. You notice nobody on that debate stage stands up and says, ‘I’m a squishy establishment moderate, I stand for nothing.’ Nobody says that. Every one of them claims to be a conservative.”
“Scripture says, ‘you shall know them by their fruits,’ ” he advised. “Don’t listen to what they say or what I say—ignore what all of us say on the campaign trail. Look to our actions.” As examples, he mentions the “major drag-out, knockdown battle” on Obamacare in 2013—aka the Cruz-led procedural battle to defund the Affordable Care Act that prompted a government shutdown—and how none of the other candidates were “anywhere to be found.”
And then, of course, there’s immigration. “There are candidates today who say they care deeply about immigration, they care deeply about amnesty,” Cruz said. “Well how do you test that? Also in 2013, we had a knockdown, drag-out fight. Barack Obama and Chuck Schumer and the Democrats joined with a bunch of establishment Republicans in pushing a massive amnesty plan.” According to Cruz—and he’s basically right—“the only reason it was beaten is because millions of Americans rose up” and joined Cruz and fellow legislators to “defeat it and stop amnesty.”
That’s obviously a shot at Rubio, but now it’s a shot at Trump, too. On Monday night in Whitefield, Cruz extended the “where were you?” criticism on the Great 2013 Amnesty Fight to Trump. He also criticized the mogul, without prompt, for supporting the 2008 bank bailout, the 2009 stimulus act, the process of eminent domain, and more.
Cruz’s pitch to New Hampshire conservatives is straightforward and, from what I’m seeing, effective. I spoke with several voters at Cruz’s bus tour stops across the state on Sunday and Monday who came in undecided and left as Cruz supporters.
William Davis of Laconia had been considering an array of candidates from Cruz to Bush (“I had a friend of mine in South Carolina who was mad at me for seeing him”) to Carly Fiorina (“I’ll go with the conspiracy theory: I literally think there’s a media witch hunt to keep her out of the front-runners”). After hearing Cruz’s presentation at the Tilt’n Diner in Tilton on Monday, Davies was persuaded. “He articulated his positions extremely well, he didn’t shy away from any of the key issues, and you know what? He didn’t shy away from his faith,” Davies said. “And the reality is it’s going to take that kind of substance to get things changed in this nation.”
Sharyn Tabor, also of Laconia, said she last saw Cruz in October and had a “pretty darn” positive impression of him, but the Tilt’n Diner appearance—in which Cruz gave a moving testimony of how his father was born again as a Christian—“absolutely” sealed the deal. “I think he’s the first man that I’ve seen running for president in I can’t remember how long that I would absolutely be honored to vote for.”
If Cruz can hold off Trump in Iowa and then consolidate conservatives in New Hampshire to either a first- or second-place finish, he’ll be in phenomenal shape to win the nomination. It would be the first time in decades that the more moderate Republican establishment has lost to an uncompromising conservative, a figure who didn’t have one eye on the primary and the other on the general election the whole time.
The obvious downside to this strategy, and the reason why the nefarious establishment is so reasonably worried, is that never bothering to appeal to moderates means that you never appeal to moderates.
During the question-and-answer portion of Cruz’s presentation at a remote lodge in Washington, New Hampshire, on Monday, one woman, a working mother with four young children, asked Cruz if he had a paid family-leave plan.
Cruz does not. Rubio is one of the few Republican candidates—if not the only one—with a paid-leave proposal. On the Democratic side, both Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have proposals that would offer new parents paid leave at two-thirds of earnings for 12 weeks. Rubio offers a tax credit for businesses that offer paid leave but does not mandate it.
“There’s no doubt that all of us would like to see everyone have paid family leave,” Cruz responded. “That would be a good thing.” And then he got around to telling her no. “Politicians love to campaign on giving away free stuff. … But the simplest rule of economics is TANSTAAFL: ‘There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.’ That anything a politician gives you, they must first take from you.” He explained, vaguely, that the best way to help parents like her would be to boost economic growth to give workers more leverage in the job market.
This was the “proper” conservative answer, and it was not a pander. One woman, Paula, came into the event undecided but left a Cruz voter specifically because of that exchange. “I thought he answered the questions very honestly, especially when the woman asked the question about paid leave. I think it was very honestly answered.” It wasn’t a pander? “Exactly.”
But the woman who asked the question, Sarah Sadowski, a registered independent who liked Rubio’s paid-leave proposal, was turned off. “I really feel like ‘eventually we’ll get there’ isn’t satisfying. …If it all hinges on economic prosperity and growth, and we’re slowing down, when do I get to stay home with my baby?”
These are the sorts of votes the Republican candidate will need to win the presidential election. Ted Cruz does not have Sarah Sadowski’s vote.