To hell with the independents. That’s not usually the animating principle of a presidential campaign, but for Ted Cruz’s, it just might be.
His strategists aren’t planning to make a big play for so-called independent voters in the general election if Cruz wins the Republican nomination. Several of the senator’s top advisers said that Cruz sees a path to victory that relies instead on increasing conservative turnout, trying to attract votes from groups that have tended to favor Democrats (Jews, Hispanics and millennials), and, in the words of one Cruz strategist, “not getting killed with independents.”
Either Cruz is not as smart as some people say, or he has decided to give up on being a serious national Republican in favor of becoming the next Sarah Palin. I’m with Henry Olsen — and others who can do math — who is quoted as saying this is a “fantasy.” (“The Republican base, he says, simply isn’t large enough to win an election nationally, and the Republican nominee must ‘energize establishment Republicans and people who don’t call themselves conservatives.’ “)
In 2012 and 2008, Republicans were 32 percent of the general electorate. In George Bush’s reelection in 2004, that number got as high as 37 percent. In 1980, Cruz’s hero Ronald Reagan won with only 28 percent of the electorate identifying as Republicans because he got 56 percent of independents — Cruz doesn’t want any of them, I guess — and 27 percent of Democrats. Cruz, or any Republican, has zero chance of becoming president without votes of non-Republicans. Cruz’s hero shouldn’t be Reagan but Barry Goldwater.
Frankly, Cruz does not have a large chunk of Republicans on his side, let alone a respectable share of the general electorate. His approval rating is upside down with the general electorate in many polls. Many mainstream Republicans hold him responsible for the shutdown and consider him grossly irresponsible. That might explain why he is in single digits in GOP 2016 polling. In the RealClearPolitics average, he trails Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
There are a couple of possible interpretations for the nonsense coming out of Camp Cruz. First, Cruz knows he has so turned off moderates and a good chunk of Republicans that he has cooked up this theory to maintain the facade that he is a viable presidential contender. Second, he lives in a bubble in which a majority of the country thinks like he does. Like Obama, he represents the people who don’t vote! Veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres rolls his eyes about this strategy. “The mind reels,” he observes. “This is exactly the kind of strategic thinking that allowed Harry Reid to get numerous Obama nominees confirmed in the last days of the lame duck Congress, nominees that otherwise would never have been confirmed.”
But how exactly does this work in a primary context? Will he tell Republicans pining to get to the White House: “Vote for me because you’re all I’ve got“? “Vote for me so we get no support from outside the party”? One veteran of Republican presidential campaigns remarks wryly, “After alienating himself from every member of the Senate he now wants to widen the circle to include their constituents. What a brilliant turnout strategy.”
Cruz seems to have already started blaming the media, the last refuge of unpopular pols. (“The assumption from one Cruz adviser is that it is the filter of the media that has generated the negativity surrounding Cruz and fueled the misperceptions [sic] about him. If he runs for president, the idea is that voters will see him unfiltered, and that he will succeed in persuading them.”)
What misconceptions could they refer to? The man is on TV almost as much as the president, so it is not as if he has not had the chance to make his case. Cruz has tried to appeal to the far right, gone to war with colleagues, specialized in throwing sand in the gears or sponsoring uncontroversial 100-0 resolutions and become a model of opportunism on national security. Now he whines that he is misunderstood.
Cruz is smart, to be sure, but his judgment has been warped by unbridled ambition. It is a shame. He might have been a contender.