What more fitting end could there have been to Cruz’s political career than Trump blowing into town and fumbling away a reelection bid for him that was in the bag? Between that and the 2016 primaries, it would have been Shakespearean tragedy.
Well, Shakespearean comedy, at least.
I don’t buy that the big rally with Trump in late October cost him anything. And if it did, it was negligible.
Kavanaugh’s eventual confirmation, which came amid sexual assault allegations, energized red-state Republicans and helped give Cruz a desperately needed boost against O’Rourke, with Cruz’s lead in his campaign’s internal polling climbing into the low teens by the time they met for their Oct. 16 debate in San Antonio…
The early voting period kicked off Oct. 22 with Trump’s rally for Cruz, which was held at the Toyota Center in Houston. Trump’s campaign claimed over 100,000 people requested tickets for the event, and local news showed long lines of people waiting to get into the 18,000-seat arena hours in advance.
But if Cruz was looking for a boost from his former rival, the opposite appeared to happen. Before Trump’s visit, Cruz’s internal numbers had him leading by double digits statewide. In the days after, his lead dropped to 5 points.
From double digits to five points in a week, with POTUS’s visit the most noteworthy event in the interim. Quite an impact, and it brings the total number of possible explanations for Betomania! up to four:
1. The progressive explanation: Everyone loves unvarnished progressivism, even/especially Texans! Beto gave it to ’em in its purest form.
2. The Obama 2.0 explanation: Progressivism was the garnish. Beto was a phenomenon because he married personal charisma to appealing hopey-changey kumbaya blather.
3. The anti-Cruz explanation: Beto was a good candidate and Cruz is a flawed one at best. He’s not all that likable, he’s viewed suspiciously by both centrist Republicans and Trumpers, and his personal brand of Reagan-esque conservatism is outdated, to put it mildly.
4. The new one, the anti-Trump explanation: Democrats hate POTUS and Texans generally aren’t all that wild about him. Having him show up in the state to campaign was like waving a red cape before a bull. It woke up the anti-Trumpers. Here’s what I wrote on August 31, the day the Cruz/Trump rally was announced.
Will the Trumps stumping for Cruz do more to turn out Texas Republicans or Texas Democrats? If you assume that Texas Dems are already as motivated as they can be by Betomania, then it makes sense as a turnout motivator on the right. If you believe, however, that a meaningful number of centrists are open to voting Cruz but are leery of POTUS, then maybe it backfires. Cruz is calculating that there aren’t a meaningful number — which is probably true.
Emphasis on “probably.” Trump’s numbers in Texas have never been stellar despite its reputation as a Republican stronghold. The last poll of his approval taken by UT-Austin had him at 48/45. The last time Quinnipiac polled Texas it was 51/46. According to CNN’s exit poll of Texans on Tuesday, among those who showed up to vote it was … 49/49. Cruz ended up winning the race 51/48. If the last few jobs reports hadn’t been as strong as they were, if Trump had indulged his instincts and fired Mueller at some point this summer, who’d be the Senator-elect from Texas today?
But wait. The theory in the story quoted above is that Cruz’s polls suddenly took a turn after the rally with Trump on October 22nd, right? Well, here’s the last two months of public polling in Texas via RCP:
Both candidates saw their support climb after the Kavanaughpocalypse during the first week of October, although Cruz’s climbed more steeply — and then never let up, steady all the way through the rally with Trump to Election Day. His final total of 51.3 percent in RCP’s average almost perfectly predicted his final share of the vote on Tuesday, 50.8 percent. Beto’s polling didn’t begin to inch up until the very end of October, a week after the Trump rally, which is more easily explained as late deciders opting for the ultra-hyped challenger than as a direct reaction to Trump’s visit.
Alternate theory, then: Cruz’s double-digit lead over Beto in mid-October was nothing more than a local backlash to the Kavanaugh wars that was destined to fade. Here’s a list of public polling of Texas from FiveThirtyEight in reverse chronological order. Note the dates of each one, and the margins.
Follow the last link if you like and scroll through FiveThirtyEight’s entire set of Texas polling. Dating back into July, Cruz’s lead was frequently in the four-point range. As you can see, as of the beginning of October, it was still four points or so. Then came Kavanaugh and suddenly several polls showed him bouncing out to leads of eight or nine. By October 21st, though — the day before the Trump rally — he was already polling again in the four-point range. As enticing as it is for Trump skeptics (a group which I’m sure includes many a Cruz advisor) to pin Cruz’s downturn on Trump, the more prosaic explanation is likely the correct one: Cruz never had much of a lead in Texas. He was reliably ahead the whole way because it’s still a reddish state but his lead only briefly touched landslide margins after the Kavanaugh fiasco momentarily pushed some voters away from O’Rourke. The backlash faded and in the end the four-point status quo prevailed, with a slightly tighter margin than expected probably due to last-minute voters opting for Beto. Trump may well have hurt Cruz but almost certainly not because of one rally. It was 20 months of Trumpiness that had already been priced into voters’ choices that helped turbo-charge the Beto juggernaut.
One more bit from the Texas Tribune story quoted above. I’ve written several times since Tuesday about pundits bickering over why O’Rourke fell just short. Would he have won if he had run a more centrist campaign, possibly attracting more votes from moderate Republicans? Or would he have actually lost votes on balance that way, since some progressives who were thrilled to see Beto run as a true-blue liberal would have given up on him if he’d started pandering to the right? The Texas Tribune notes that Beto actually did reach out to Republicans — sort of:
Another case that Cruz’s advisers made in the wake of the election: O’Rourke never challenged them for GOP voters in a serious way. On that point, the record is less than straightforward: O’Rourke broadly appealed to Republicans through his 254-county blitz of the state, visiting GOP strongholds long neglected by Democrats and talking about issues he believed united both parties.
“He consciously went for everybody,” [O’Rourke chief of staff David] Wysong said. “It was a substantial part of his stump speech, but he also said what he believed. I think he was being honest to who he is. I think the way this was done was more of him just being honest and transparent about what he believes than, ‘Oh wait, here was this little group I need to talk to in this way to get them excited.'”
He wouldn’t take centrist positions to pander to Republicans but he would show up in their neighborhoods to ask for their votes, believing that some soft righties might prefer a friendly liberal who stands up for his beliefs to a more obviously calculating politician like Cruz. There’s no way to resolve whether that approach netted him more votes than he would have gotten if he’d been willing to pander more on the issues. But here’s a notable county-level result from Tuesday’s Texas results:
— Aman Batheja (@amanbatheja) November 7, 2018
O’Rourke very narrowly won the Republican stronghold of Tarrant County, which encompasses Ft. Worth. It was rural voters who pushed Cruz over the top. Even some major red cities went for Beto.
According to CNN, he met with his senior aides on Wednesday to discuss the future. One source claims that he’s had “very initial discussions” with O’Rourke about what a 2020 presidential campaign might look like. Exit quotation via Jeff Roe, Cruz’s chief strategist: “He used a fog machine at his concession speech. He ain’t done.”