Erick Erickson makes the case. Theory: This match-up, more than any other, would bring the most happiness to all wings of the party.
I think Trump will fade, Fiorina will fade, and Carson is already fading. They are doing so because their momentum is based more on name identification and not on records or ground games.
If we look at traditional campaign data, which under the smoke and veneer of Campaign 2016 still matters, what we will find is that Ted Cruz is laying down a hell of a ground game and has tons of cash with not nearly the burn rate that even Jeb Bush has. Cruz stands to profit the most from the collapse of Carson, Fiorina, and Trump — all of whom are playing on the outsider advantages right now. Those advantages will start to go away as more traditional and necessary campaign tactics and strategies kick in like, for example, ballot access…
While conservatives will gravitate rapidly to Cruz, the more establishment oriented people who recognize the party still needs a fresh face and chage will likely go to Marco Rubio. Already I’m hearing that both Walker and Bush donors are looking at Rubio as their next pick. Rubio has the highest positives of any of the candidates and is, in fact, the one Republican that the Democrats desperately fear because of his perceived ability to attract women, young voters, and Hispanics…
I think over the coming weeks, the campaign vultures will circle the Scott Walker campaign, looking to see if he has a pulse and, if they find none, will begin in earnest to pull voters and donors away from him. I suspect we’ll see the more conservative elements head to Cruz and the more establishment elements head to Rubio.
Would tea partiers be happy with that? Hell yeah. What sort of conservative doesn’t respect Ted Cruz? Would Trump fans? Not all, but for many Cruz will be an acceptably anti-establishment populist consolation prize. Center-righties? Of course. There’s no one in either field as likable as center-right Marco Rubio. Establishmentarians? You betcha. Not only will they have a guy in Rubio who went to bat for them on amnesty, they’ll have not one but two Latino candidates left standing to represent the party after Trump spent months ranting about Mexican rapists. And not just Latino but young — both Cruz and Rubio are just 44 years old. They’re both charismatic, highly intelligent, and preternaturally polished in their public speaking. Who wouldn’t enjoy this race?
It’s not hard to see how the field winnows to these two either. For Rubio, it’s a simple matter of Scott Walker’s campaign finally keeling over now that it’s gasping for air and the donor class reluctantly accepting that they’re pumping a dry well in Jeb Bush. If Walker’s numbers don’t start to improve soon, we might see donors abandon him by Halloween. Jeb will take longer to fade because of his financial support, but if Rubio leaps ahead of him in the polls and stays there for a month or two, pressure will increase on Jeb to get out of the way and let Rubio consolidate the center. Cruz’s challenge is bigger in that he needs Trump, Carson, and Fiorina to fade before he become a serious threat, but as Erick says, it’s easy to imagine the latter two slipping and their supporters shifting to the most outsider-y insider in the race, i.e. Cruz. Meanwhile, I continue to think Trump will find an excuse to quit the race sometime this winter unless he’s implausibly bounced out to such a huge lead in the polls that he looks to be a walkover winner in Iowa and/or New Hampshire. He’s not going to take his chances in those states if the polls are competitive; the damage to the Trump brand and to his own self-image will be too great if he loses. He needs to know going in that he’ll win or else he’ll drop out and spend the rest of his life telling everyone that he would have won if he’d only stuck it out. Once that happens, Cruz takes off — in theory.
I don’t know that I agree with Erickson, though, that Cruz has a “slight advantage” over Rubio. I understand the argument: Cruz is well funded, he’ll be very strong in the SEC primary, and he’s not compromised on the crucial issue of immigration the way Marco “Gang of Eight” Rubio is. The counterargument is that if and when Bush and Walker are out of the way, most of the donor class is going to shower Rubio with dough in the interest of stopping Cruz. And Rubio, at least in theory, has a wider base of voters than Cruz does. He’ll lost most of the conservative vote to Cruz but certainly not all of it, and meanwhile centrists and center-righties will swoon over Rubio as the sunny, sensible alternative to that guy who always seems to be on Fox News calling for government shutdowns. The X factor is the calendar: If Cruz and Rubio split the early states somehow and then Cruz cleans up in the southern states, would the non-conservative parts of the party rally to Rubio after that in an all-out “Not Cruz” effort? Or would Cruz’s momentum after his wins in the south be such that Rubio realistically couldn’t catch up to him in delegates afterward? Let’s hope we find out, because this would be the best GOP race in decades.