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Cruz, Iowa, and the Hidden GOP Base Vote

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, unlike pretty much all of his rivals for the Republican nomination for president, has had a disciplined and careful plan for winning.

Other contenders were thrown off course by the emergence of Donald Trump as the clear poll leader nationally and in virtually every state, and seemed unable to handle Trump’s ability to overwhelmingly dominate media coverage of the race while sprinkling in putdowns of the other candidates. Cruz, on the other hand, continued to do what he has done since his election to the Senate in 2012, and with his immediate forays into the early 2016 caucus and primary states in the winter of 2013. His approach has been to stay to the right of every other possible Republican contender, and to claim the leadership role in the conservative base’s war with the party’s establishment and leaders in the House and Senate.

When neurosurgeon Ben Carson became a favorite of evangelicals, Cruz’s strategy to win Iowa based on his own strong ties to evangelicals and conservative voters was in jeopardy. With Trump leading the pack and competitive in Iowa, a Carson victory in that state would have relegated Cruz to third place or worse, and damaged any ability to build on Iowa elsewhere. Cruz seemed to understand from the start that taking on Trump was likely to be a losing proposition for whichever candidate took this approach. So Cruz played nice with Trump, and waited for the evangelicals’ infatuation with Carson to run its course.

The terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino badly damaged Carson. His soft-spoken pronouncements did not match the emerging national desire to fight back harder against ISIS and to soundly reject the avoidance strategy of the day from the White House. There was also renewed focus on taking stronger measures within the United States to prevent the rapid spread of homegrown radicalization and terror from radical Islamists, whose existence the White House refuses to acknowledge.

Cruz out-organized his GOP rivals in Iowa, and won two key endorsements: Congressman Steve King and evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats.

Vander Plaats had supported Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012, both of whom were upset winners of the Iowa caucuses. While Donald Trump was holding rallies across the country and other candidates focused on winning second place in New Hampshire — a state with far fewer evangelicals as a share of Republican voters than Iowa — Cruz spent more time in Iowa. He built up a lead there, as confirmed by nearly every survey taken in late December and early January.

Then The Donald struck back, suggesting that Cruz might not be eligible to serve as president since he was born in Canada and not “a natural born” citizen. Cruz responded with the facts, but soon learned that when Donald Trump strikes, just the facts are not an adequate response or defense. Trump has now retaken the lead in Iowa in the three most recent surveys, and Cruz’s momentum has stalled.

Suddenly Cruz’s strategy for the nomination is at risk: win Iowa, take second in New Hampshire, win South Carolina, and then win most of the primaries on March 1, several of which are in southern states. This strategy assumed that a Trump loss in Iowa would damage him badly elsewhere, with the aura of momentum, victory, and poll leads smashed.

The Cruz campaign, no longer gliding to victory in Iowa, is now exploring new lines of attack against Trump. They may find, to their dismay, that Trump’s base of support is solid, at least as far as polls. Whether there will be a stampede to the caucuses on Iowa’s caucus date, February 1, is less clear, since many Trump supporters have never participated in these events before. But the emerging battle between Trump and Cruz seems to suggest that the two candidates draw largely from different pools. If either were to emerge as the Republican nominee, he would need to absorb much of the other’s base of support to have a chance in the general election.

Trump, unlike Cruz, attracts lots of supporters who are not often engaged in the political process, including a decent share of Democrats. It is not hard to see most conservative voters shifting from Cruz to Trump if he were the nominee. Of course, Trump will also drive away voters as well.

This lack of overlap in support bases for Trump and Cruz may be a bigger problem for Cruz than for Trump. Cruz’s decision to make conservative groups happy — much of the talk radio crowd, the “freedom caucus” allies in the House, those who see the Republican establishment as enemy number one — will make it particularly difficult for him to expand the Republican vote in a general election. An article in Monday’s Wall Street Journal by a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution indicates that a large portion of the electorate who are in the middle — self-described moderates (29% of all voters) and independents (41% of all voters) — have no interest in either Trump or Cruz. More than 50% from these segments say they would not consider voting for Trump, and over 40% say that about Cruz. From the article:

With a large field, the percentage of people who say they intend to vote for a candidate is less relevant than the percentage who say they will not vote for him. By this measure, the current GOP front-runners are doing very badly. As the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary approach, Republicans may want to consider this if they are serious about one of their own becoming president.

This is particularly important, since Hillary Clinton is a much weaker opponent for any Republican than Barack Obama ever was. Her marriage to Bill Clinton, her entitlement, and her fakery are increasingly problematic. How many voters who are not already in her corner will find a new reason to support her in 2016 — unless as the lesser of two evils?

Cruz has laid out a strategy for the general election: attract a large share of the many millions of conservative and evangelical votes who supposedly stayed home in 2008 and 2012, disappointed with their choices and angered that the party chose moderates twice who lost. This is, on its face, nonsense. George W. Bush won 62 million votes in 2004, the high-water mark for Republicans, and the only popular vote victory for Republicans since 1988. John McCain won 60 million in 2008, and Mitt Romney won 61 million votes in 2012.

Where, exactly, are the millions of missing votes?

Does Cruz mean to suggest that a more conservative candidate would have beaten Barack Obama in 2008 in the midst of the financial collapse? Might there have been some bigoted conservative voters who chose not to vote for a Mormon in 2012? Maybe, but there is no evidence of that in states with large numbers of social conservatives. McCain lost by 9.5 million votes, Romney by five million. If there was a small under-vote by conservatives, how does that make up these gaps?

The reality is that Republicans have an Electoral College problem and a demographic problem.

In 1988, George Herbert Walker Bush won the same percentage of white voters and minority voters as Romney did in 2012. But Bush won nationally by almost 8%, while Romney lost by 4%. That is how rapidly America is changing. The white share of the vote, where Republicans won in 2012 by 20%, has declined from 85% to 72% of all voters. Minority voters, who have grown from 15% to 28%, favored Obama by 67%. In 2016, the white share of the vote may decline to 70%. Democrats are already busily registering minority group members to vote this year. Republicans will need to expand their vote share among whites and minorities to win in 2016.

For a Republican to get to 270 electoral college votes, he needs to win all the Romney states which produced 206 Electoral College votes (only North Carolina, with 15 votes, was a close race). He also needs to win a bunch of states that have been voting for Democrats more often than Republicans in recent cycles: Florida (29), Ohio (18), Virginia (13), Colorado (9), Iowa (6), New Hampshire (4), Pennsylvania (20), Nevada (6), and Wisconsin (10) among them.

No Republican has ever been elected without winning Ohio. For four years, Cruz has been at war with former House Speaker John Boehner. The truth of the matter is that Boehner is probably closer to most Ohio Republicans’ political attitudes than Cruz. Cruz was the leader of the effort that resulted in a government shutdown for most of October 2013. The aftermath of that was a sharp decline in approval ratings for the Republican Party. For one month, popular media reported on the shutdown rather than the total failure of the Obamacare exchanges in many states to enable even one person to enroll. This was beyond an unforced error and a gift to the Democratic Party, though it made Cruz a hero among those who wanted to go to war with the president, however fruitless the effort was bound to be.

Cruz’s organizational superiority may be enough for him to eke out a win over Trump in Iowa. His path to the nomination may remain viable. But a general election win will be a bigger challenge. Democrats believe that their base — African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, union members (particularly public employee union members), single women, the LGBT community, Muslims, and secular Jews — is growing as a share of the electorate. They will win a high-turnout election. So everything they will do this year will be an attempt to motivate their base.

The conservative base is not growing as a share of the electorate. If Cruz really thinks that millions of new voters who are part of the conservative base will show up to elect him, that seems like a very thin reed. Would Cruz move towards the middle and try to attract the moderate Republicans (the hated RINOs) and independents he has railed against for four years? Many in the conservative base at times seem to be happiest to win the civil war and to take down the GOP establishment, regarding a general election loss as less important. Somehow a 0% conservative (a Democrat) is better than a 60%-70% model (a moderate Republican, the only type who can win in some districts or states).

Victories in midterm elections are not a guide to presidential election years, when minority vote share is far higher. Republican governors were elected in Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts in 2014. The GOP nominee will be lucky to lose by only 15 points in these states in 2016.

The Republicans could get lucky — Hillary Clinton could be indicted, or the attorney general could refuse to move forward with an FBI recommendation for an indictment, leading FBI Director Comey to resign or be fired. The resulting Nixonian stench could badly undercut Clinton, who will never willingly give up her pursuit of the White House unless imprisoned. Even a Republican with little appeal beyond the base might win against such a badly damaged opponent. For those who think winning the White House is the real goal, that seems like little more than hope and a prayer, not a strategy in which Republicans and conservatives have agency.