The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Yes, Ted Cruz is counting on nabbing Donald Trump’s supporters

Republican presidential candidate  Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally June 16 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

This article first appeared in early July, when Donald Trump's immigration comments first kicked up an outcry. In a subsequent interview, Cruz called this "classic Washington Post silliness." During a radio interview on Thursday, though, Cruz admitted, "I don't believe Donald is going to be the nominee, and I think, in time, the lion's share of his supporters end up with us." So there's that.

For the most part, the response from 2016 Republicans to Donald Trump’s comments about Mexican illegal immigrants has been uniform: tempered outrage. Rick Santorum was happy with the fact that Trump raised the issue, although not the words Trump used. (In case you didn’t hear the words — welcome back to Earth! — Trump said that "when Mexico sends its people," it sends people who are "bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.") Marco Rubio called the comments "offensive and inaccurate." Rick Perry was similarly offended. Jeb Bush deemed them "extraordinarily ugly."

But there’s a notable exception: Ted Cruz. Shortly after the issue flared up last week, Cruz said that Trump "speaks the truth" and didn’t need to apologize. He kept defending Trump over the weekend, saying Friday on Fox News that he thinks Trump is "terrific" and, on "Meet the Press," that he "salute[s] Donald Trump for focusing on the need to address illegal immigration." The suggestion that immigrants are rapists? "He has a colorful way of speaking."

So why is Cruz the outlier here? Let’s game this out.

The odds that Donald Trump is still on the ballot by the time the Iowa caucuses roll around seems relatively slim. Having lost deals with NBC, NASCAR, Macy’s and others, Trump told "Fox and Friends" this weekend that he didn’t know the backlash was "going to be quite this severe." The extent of the damage to his business interests won’t be clear for some time -- if ever, at least publicly -- but given that more than one-third of his self-proclaimed net worth of $9 billion was in "licensing deals, brand and branded developments," it seems likely that these hits are having an effect. That's if you take that $9 billion at face value, which you shouldn't. Trump is nearing the point at which he’d have to offer a more detailed set of financial documents — something he's never done before, and which is often assumed to be a reason that he’s always decided against running in the past.

The adrenaline boost of good poll numbers is one thing. The reality of coming clean on his net worth — much less of losing money — is another. If the polls start to slump (as would be expected in the wake of an announcement bump) -- or as the day approaches in which he has to stand off to the side of a crowded debate stage — don’t be surprised if Trump starts hunting for the exit.

As anyone who has written critically about Trump can tell you, he’s very quickly built up a vocal base of support on this issue — a base of support that will be looking for a home if and when Trump bails.

And Cruz will greet them with arms wide open.

Gallup polling from in September 2014 showed that the group most concerned about immigration was conservatives. Seventy-six percent of that group considered immigration "extremely" or "very" important to their vote last November, compared to 58 percent of moderates and 59 percent of liberals (although the reason immigration was so important to each group almost certainly differed). Unlike Bush or Rubio, Cruz is well-positioned to appeal to those conservative voters.

Unlike other candidates who might similarly want that support, Cruz is relatively immune to the racial overtones of the issue. Cruz is Hispanic, of course, and the son of immigrants himself. While his family isn't from Mexico, his comments in support of Trump have been in support of the man and the big-picture issue, not the specifics of Trump’s critique, which are very difficult to defend if you look at the facts. Cruz likely has the luxury of worrying far less about the general election repercussions of bashing illegal immigration than, say, Bush.

It doesn’t take much imagination to envision a scene a few weeks from now in which Trump, for reasons ostensibly beyond his control, announces that he’s not going to run after all. And shortly thereafter, throwing his arm around Cruz to offer some support. "I respect Ted Cruz for the view he's got," Trump said on CNN last week. "He was really out there and strong on it."

"I shouldn't say this," Trump continued, "because, I assume, he's an opponent, but the fact is he was very brave in coming out."

It's not hard to see Cruz e-mailing those words out to everyone on Donald Trump's yuge, classy e-mail list.