Ted Cruz's risky bet that the conservative base can win him the presidency

Campbell tells me that the Cruz campaign is overlooking another fundamental aspect of his work: The party itself needs to be united behind its nominee, and the open warfare that has broken out over the prospect of Cruz becoming the GOP’s standard-bearer suggests that’s unlikely to happen should he best his Republican rivals. “A candidate who appeals only to the establishment or only to the true-blue conservative can’t win” the general election, Campbell says. “You need them both together. Even if you got every conservative out to vote, you still need moderate support as well. And the establishment can’t hope to put together a winning ticket without conservative support.”

Cruz may talk about 54 million missing Evangelical voters — that’s the number he cited to me last week — but his campaign isn’t actually trying to turn them all out to the polls. Their ambitions are more modest. “If you want a benchmark to look to, I’ll take 2008, I’ll take 2004,” says the Cruz adviser, referring to the number of voters who turned out to support the Republican in those years. His boss’s claims to the contrary, he doesn’t actually fault Romney’s 2012 campaign, which won independent voters by six points. “They did achieve what they wanted to achieve,” he says. “They just picked the wrong target, and the odds were stacked against them.”

That itself is a claim disputed by Romney’s own strategists and independent political analysts alike. “This whole theory that Cruz has about the election, it doesn’t stand scrutiny,” says Stuart Stevens, who served as a senior adviser to Romney during the 2012 race. He notes that Cruz ran behind Romney in Texas, and that, with the exception of Ohio, turnout declined among white, Evangelical voters in states Romney won handily, meaning the enthusiasm gap in those states had no effect on the race’s final outcome.

The Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter has reinforced these findings: She notes that the 20 states with the highest turnout in 2012 included “every competitive swing state.” And she draws a distinction between independent voters, which Romney won, and self-described moderates, which he lost in a 15-point landslide. A moderate, she argues, is “a more accurate representation of a swing voter because there is evidence to suggest those who called themselves independents actually leaned to the right.”