October 14, 2013

Chris Cillizza makes a very good point today: Any candidate for president should be  focused on winning the nomination right now, not the general election. It’s not quite true that presidential nominees are interchangeable, but it’s close enough that the clear strategic incentive for any candidate is to do whatever it takes to win the primaries and caucuses, regardless of the possible effect on November 2016.

However, I strongly disagree that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has moved closer to winning that nomination. In fact, I’m confident he’s hurt his chances. Probably fatally.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) speaks at the Values Voters Summit. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) speaks at the Values Voters Summit. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

Yes, Cruz has, as Cillizza noted, successfully made himself the face of radical Republicans. He owns the shutdown. And, yes, on Fox News and other GOP-aligned media outlets, the shutdown will be remembered as a glorious victory right up to the point where it was sold out by the RINOs and the squishes. That surely helped Cruz win the Value Voters straw poll over the weekend that Cillizza cites.

But away from the cameras, most Republican party actors — including many who are very conservative and whom Cruz would need for a White House run — believe that the shutdown has been a disaster for the party, and they hold Cruz responsible. It’s one thing to be a radical; it’s another to be a loser who concocted a losing strategy.

The bottom line? If you want to know who is winning in the race for the GOP nomination, don’t watch the straw polls, and don’t watch polling spikes that are produced by news coverage and evaporate when that coverage changes. Instead, watch what party leaders — as wide a range of party leaders as possible — are saying about candidates. And what most of them have been saying for the last couple of weeks about Ted Cruz, on and off the record, is far from complimentary.

Up until this fight, I thought Cruz had a plausible shot at the nomination, despite the hostility that some of his Senate colleagues have expressed toward him. But the shutdown has spread the hostility far beyond Capitol Hill. And even worse than the personal hostility: There’s a lack of confidence in his judgment. There are lots of paths forward to political success for such a candidate, anywhere from Senate gadfly to Fox News host, but it’s very unlikely that presidential nominee is one of them.