Ben Domenech sent a flutter through conservative Twitter this weekend with this tweet. Ted Cruz, the great tea-party hope, a favorite for the nomination?
I think he’s right.
Likeliest Republican nominee as of today: @tedcruz.
— Ben Domenech (@bdomenech) August 22, 2015
Why does Cruz look like a frontrunner now when he didn’t two months ago? Mainly, I think, because the “electable” candidates have all looked weaker than expected, and not just vis-a-vis Trump. It’s been fully eight months since Jeb Bush announced his exploratory committee and still no one’s excited. He comes off like a less charismatic, more centrist Mitt Romney. Scott Walker can’t seem to give a straight answer to tough immigration questions and he disappeared at the first debate, taking a beating for it in the polls. Increasingly it seems like Tom Coburn’s assessment, that he’s not ready for national primetime, might be right. Marco Rubio’s in a different position from Bush and Walker in that he hasn’t really disappointed — he excelled at the debate and his favorable ratings remain off the charts — but he seems to be everyone’s second choice. Maybe he starts to move as Jeb fans accept that the dream of Bush 3.0 isn’t happening and Walker’s fans accept that the man who laid waste to the left in Wisconsin won’t be the same wrecking ball as president, but it seems like voters might be stuck seeing Rubio as a guy who’ll be perfect four or eight years from now. He looks like he’s 30 years old. Why not make him wait?
So the three “electable” guys in the race seem unelectable while Trump’s candidacy, which started off looking like a stunt, turns increasingly serious. The expected “Bush vs. Not Bush” campaign appears, for the moment, to be a “Trump vs. Not Trump” contest instead. If you’re in the “Not Trump” camp, who’s left realistically except Ted Cruz? His right-wing competition, i.e. Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal, seems to be going nowhere. He’s raised far more money than anyone expected he would, so he’s likely to be competitive deep into next spring at least. He’s well positioned in Iowa, South Carolina, and the “SEC primary” thanks to his evangelical cred. And as the staunchest conservative in the top tier, he’s a natural draw for righties who dislike Trump because they believe (correctly) that he’s a phony conservative.
More importantly, I think the success of Trump’s bareknuckle populist campaign has moved the Overton window of who can plausibly be nominated towards insurgency, which benefits Cruz. I touched on that in this post last week. We might (but probably won’t) reach the point where Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are 1-2 in the race and establishmentarians opposed to both will begin to warm to Cruz simply by dint of the fact that he’s not a loose cannon. Cruz, in other words, may become a sort of compromise candidate whose nomination can heal the party, sort of, after the fire of Trumpmania. At the start of the campaign, before Trump got in, it seemed like Scott Walker was best positioned to please both the establishment and the grassroots, but with populists now flexing their muscle via Trumpmania, a compromise between the two wings may require a pol who’s more ostentatiously populist than Walker is. Simply put, the donors and party brokers who want Jeb might now conclude that nominating the dynast Bush amid this populist wave would break the party — and that their back-up choice, Walker, might himself not have the strength among the grassroots anymore to fully heal the rift. The further the Trumpites and anti-Trumpites pull apart, the more urgent it’ll be to find someone who can pull them back together. Cruz, the brilliant Harvard Law grad who sounds like a preacher on the stump and shut down the government to try to stop ObamaCare, seems like the natural compromise choice. (See now why Cruz has been careful not to antagonize any Trump fans?) In that sense and probably that sense alone, Trumpmania has been excellent for conservatism. By making populism a force in the primary, Trump might end up forcing the wider party to make a concession to populism by accepting the tea party’s guy inside the Beltway as nominee.
Exit question: Is it actually true, as so many commenters claim, that Ted Cruz would benefit the most in the polls if Trump dropped out? If you think, as I’ve argued here, that Trumpmania is more of a populist and anti-illegal-immigration phenomenon than it is an ideological phenomenon, then yeah, Cruz is a natural beneficiary. (Ben Carson would be too.) Lots of Trump voters aren’t very conservative in their politics, though; check the crosstabs of polls taken over the last two months and you’ll find that he does at least as well with self-described moderates as he does with conservatives. Are moderate Trump fans going to swing around to the tea-partier Cruz? If not, where do they go? Or do they just decide to sit out the election?