At his core, Donald Trump wants to be liked. He wants to beat the competition, he likes power, he likes to be wealthy, he likes to put his name on things. Of course. But he also very much wants to be liked.
Donald Trump obsesses over the poll numbers that show his burgeoning popularity. When the numbers started to show him falling behind in Iowa, he got angry, calling voters stupid. He insists that Hispanic voters and Muslims are fans of him and his policies, even citing questionable polls to that point. He never attacks anyone until they attack him (he says), once they've committed the great sin of trying to make him look bad. But even then, he tends to pull his punches. He keeps anyone from getting too mad at him by saying things like, "John McCain wasn't a hero; okay, yes he was." Something for everyone.
There have been countless articles written about the extent to which Trump might exhibit narcissistic traits (here, psychologists offer their thoughts), but we don't need to go that far. Trump wants to win, yes, but certainly that's in large part because it reinforces that he's a beloved public figure. After Vladimir Putin said nice things about Trump, Trump defended the Russian president — even going so far as to wave away Putin's having had journalists murdered. That doesn't do him any good in the election, but being spoken of positively is more important than that.
By contrast, there's no outward suggestion that Ted Cruz particularly cares about being liked. He certainly does in the way that any candidate for elected office relishes positive feedback from supporters. But Cruz is perfectly happy getting elected and/or reelected while being hated by all of his co-workers. It's partly shtick — reinforcement of the Ted Cruz Anti-Establishment Brand. That's nonetheless a tough bit to commit to when you're facing 90-plus people who wish you'd go away.
And this, at the most basic level, is why the Republican Party establishment and its elders would pick President Trump over President Cruz if push came to shove.
Terry Branstad, the governor of Iowa, told the media this week that he wanted to see Ted Cruz lose his state next month. The primary reason, pretty obviously, is that Cruz long opposed the federal mandate that renewable fuels be mixed into gasoline — fuels like corn-based ethanol, which means lots of jobs in corn-growing Iowa. Cruz also opposed a tax credit for wind energy production that's beneficial to industry in the state. Cruz has softened his position on ethanol (he wants Iowa voters to like him, at least for the next 11 days), but no matter.
Contrast that with Trump. Trump's position on wind energy prior to this campaign was one of outright hostility. For years he was embroiled in a fight in Scotland, where a company received approval to build offshore wind turbines that Trump worried would ruin the view from one of his golf courses. He tweeted things like this:
Nobody wants wind turbines, they are failing all over the world and need massive subsidy--a disaster for taxpayers.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 15, 2012
Then, in November, he was at a forum in Iowa where a woman asked if he would support the tax credit that helped keep her husband employed. Trump hemmed a bit, but acquiesced.
There's an opportunism to Trump's positions, of course, just as there is to Cruz's softened position on ethanol. But Trump's pliability is obvious; Cruz's isn't. For lobbyists and senators and members of the Republican National Committee, pliability is important. That's not meant pejoratively. Democracy theoretically mandates compromise to reach consensus. Trump prides himself on being a deal-maker, and deal-making means compromise, by definition. Yeah, Trump brags about twisting arms, but sometimes you also have to pat backs.
When people like John McCain and Bob Dole and other members of what Cruz dismisses as the "establishment" look at the party's front-runners, the choice isn't hard. Should we back the guy who wants to be liked and doesn't really care that much about policy specifics, or should we back the guy who doesn't care what we think and is adamant about getting his way to the point of encouraging a politically futile government shutdown in 2013? Not a tough call. Their first choice would be someone who they know agrees with them. Barring that, they'll take someone who at the very least isn't perfectly fine with their hating him.
Earlier this week, Trump expanded his critiques of Cruz in the wake of the Texas senator's having recently risen in the polls. He'd been hitting Cruz on having been born in Canada, which doesn't seem to have punctured Cruz's bubble. So he went for the jugular, offering one of the worst insults he could think of in an interview with George Stephanopoulos.
"He's a nasty guy," Trump said of Cruz. "Nobody likes him. Nobody in Congress likes him. Nobody likes him anywhere once they get to know him."
He continued. "He's a very — he's got an edge that's no good. You can't make deals with people like that and it's not a good thing. It's not a good thing for the country."
Trump cares about being liked. Trump will make deals. Compared to Cruz, that's music to the establishment's ears.
Update: A Republican emailed with an alternate theory, which is presented below with light edits.
I don't believe anybody prefers Trump over Cruz. I think everybody sees Cruz as much more realistic chance of getting nomination and they don't want to come out and say they are against Trump and Cruz, as then they are against the top two in the polls. So they give Trump a pass and focus on Cruz. No one really thinks Trump can win. Maybe they should, but they don't.
In other words: They target Cruz because they think Trump is a non-starter and they don't want either to be president.