Is it unfair to put a question mark in that headline? Cruz fans will say, “What’s so surprising about it?!” But look — it is surprising. A politician’s favorable rating is typically treated as a measure of his personal likability, and Cruz is not known as a guy to whom people easily take a shine the way they do to, say, Ben Carson or Marco Rubio. Cruz is aware of this too, cleverly joking at the CNBC debate on October 29th that he might not be the candidate you’d most like to have a beer with but he’ll get you home safe if you let him be your designated driver. His endless grandstanding can be off-putting even to people who agree with him on policy up and down the line. People who don’t agree with him on policy, from the left all the way over to centrists in the GOP, tend to treat his name as a curse word. The 2013 effort to defund ObamaCare and ensuing shutdown continues to look more like an early campaign commercial for Cruz than a fully-baked strategy to accomplish the stated goal. He can be hard to like — but that only makes these numbers more impressive. It takes an unusually deft politician to overcome a likability problem so thoroughly that he’s topping even a candidate with easy charm like Rubio on a metric like this. Rich Lowry has a smart piece out this week arguing that, for all the hype, Cruz is less a rigid ideologue like Barry Goldwater than he is a shrewd if personally awkward maneuverer like Richard Nixon. There’s something to that.
I still can’t quite believe that Cruz is ahead of Carson and Rubio on a test of pure likability, but a pol’s favorability rating is actually a bit broader than that (even though the two are often equated). Whether you view a politician “favorably” depends, after all, on more than whether you think he’s charming or a swell joe. His policy positions play into it; trustworthiness does too, which is why Carson always scores high. I think whatever Cruz lacks in personal likability is being made up for in his smart triangulation plays on policy, staying between Rubio and Paul on foreign policy and between Rubio and Trump on immigration (although he’s drifted to Trump’s right lately). He won’t go along with Trump in calling for Muslims to be denied entry to the U.S., but he also won’t go along with the centrists in demanding that Trump be condemned. Unless you’re far towards the center of the party, there’s something for you to like in Cruz’s stances on any subject.
And of course, the perception created from the debates that Cruz is highly intelligent and therefore would govern competently goes a long way in building trust in him even among righty skeptics. WaPo looked at RCP’s national polling averages and noted this morning that he seemed to really start to take off after the CNBC debate on October 29th of last year. (Coincidentally, the same debate at which he delivered the designated-driver line.) You can look at the trend lines yourself; it’s hard to deny their conclusion and the follow-on point that the Paris attacks a few weeks later seemed to destroy Ben Carson by sending his voters stampeding towards Cruz. One curious quirk, though: Rubio also rose after the October 29th debate, at roughly the same rate Cruz did, and was less than a point behind Cruz in the national average on December 8th. But then he started to fall off while Cruz kept climbing. I’m not sure why. My best guess is that Christie was inching up around the same time, siphoning off some votes from Rubio, and then the big immigration punch-up with Cruz at the December 15th debate pushed Rubio down further. That’s something worth looking at more closely given the prominence of immigration in the primaries.
The other big takeaway from Gallup’s data is the decline of Jeb Bush. Believe it or not, Jeb was at 54/27 favorability in late July; five months of war with Trump later, he’s at -1, worst among all top-tier candidates. Note the change over time among men, specifically:
You could speculate that the downturn was due to Republicans growing more aware of his centrist record, but there’s really nothing here to support that. He’s down dramatically among moderate/liberal GOPers (a big part of Trump’s base) as well as with conservatives. And the issues on which Jeb is most famously centrist, immigration and Common Core, haven’t really been huge liabilities for him. Common Core has remained a minor issue in the primary and it’s Rubio who’s taken most of the heat on immigration. The simpler explanation for Jeb’s downturn is that he’s succeeded, more or less, in his master plan to force voters to choose between him and Trump — and most of them have chosen Trump. Republican men, in particular, give Trump high marks in poll after poll. Probably not coincidentally, Bush does far worse with them than he does with Republican women. (The alpha male/beta male dynamic between Trump and Jeb may have special resonance with men. Who knows.) What you’re also seeing here, though, is further evidence that more goes into favorability than mere personal likability. I think Bush is personally likable; he’s smart and mild-mannered when he’s not forcing himself through a new attack. But he comes off as hapless against Trump, and the dynastic/donor baggage he comes with might have crushed him even if Trump hadn’t run. Even so, among all the surprises of this year’s race, the idea that Ted Cruz might be polling first in favorability in early 2016 while Jeb Bush is polling dead last ranks right up there with Trumpmania among the biggest.
If you missed it earlier this week, here’s Cruz telling a DACA recipient that no, she doesn’t get to stay in the U.S. once he’s president. More reason for Republicans to respect him. We’ll see, perhaps, whether general election voters feel the same way.