There is a good chance that the Republican nomination will come down to either Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. (See the analyses by Scott Bland in National Journal and by Jason Horowitz in the New York Times.) Both men, of course, have their strong and weak points, but for an election as important as 2016, a question that cannot be ignored is which candidate is the most electable. Not one of the goals of conservatives can be met without a Republican president, unless Republicans have enough votes in the Senate to overturn a veto by Hillary Clinton.
As William F. Buckley Jr. once advised, conservatives need to support the most conservative candidate who can actually win. The candidate who best meets that goal is Marco Rubio. I think the arguments made by conservative political analyst Henry Olsen back in October of 2014 still hold true. Here is Olson’s key point:
The number of self-described conservatives has remained relatively constant for more than 40 years: Depending on the poll and the year, it has fluctuated between 33 and 40 percent. The number of self-described Republicans has moved more significantly, but it has never risen above 33 percent for more than a year. Unlike victory in Texas, victory nationwide requires the GOP nominee to attract significant numbers of self-described moderate independents.
In other words, to win, a Republican candidate must attract voters who lean conservative but are not part of the conservative movement, and independents dissatisfied with the reign of Barack Obama. Cruz obviously believes that the majority of the country is conservative, and that if he runs on the principles espoused by the Republican base, these voters will carry him to victory. One Republican argued back in 1967 that to win, Republicans needed a coalition that included many more than the most conservative base voters.
That Republican was Ronald Reagan:
We cannot offer a narrow sectarian party in which all must swear allegiance to prescribed commandments. Such a party can be highly disciplined, but it does not win elections. This kind of party soon disappears in a blaze of glorious defeat, and it never puts into practice its basic tenets, no matter how noble they may be.
Obviously Cruz disagrees, and believes that the tactics he followed in the fight against Obamacare and against Planned Parenthood are proof that he can win the presidency with the support of the base. It’s clear, however, that the support of the base will not be enough. To win, the Republican candidate will have to attract self-proclaimed moderates as well as conservative-leaning independents. They will also attract some remaining centrist Democrats dismayed about how left their party has become. These voters are more likely to pull the lever for Rubio than for Cruz.
The two men, of course, have many things in common. Both of them are 44, both of them are Latino, and their parents are Cuban emigres. Both, as we have seen from the Republican debates, are quick on their feet, and expert debaters. But after that, the two diverge. Rubio won as a Tea Party favorite, but put off conservatives whose main concern is immigration restriction rather than immigration reform. Cruz has the support of these Republicans, and also social conservatives, who would choose him rather than Rubio. That helps Cruz with the base, but does not help with independents and moderates.
I believe that Rubio, whose personal story resonates and moves many voters, is likely to gain more independents and even Democrats who for good reason do not trust Hillary Clinton. Clinton will claim expertise on foreign policy because of her years as secretary of State, but Rubio will be able to challenge her record. We have already seen an example of this in his recent exchange with Charlie Rose about Benghazi. Watch how tough and unflappable Rubio is as he demolishes Rose with one blow after another. Just imagine Rubio doing the same with Hillary Clinton on the debate stage.
Finally, if Rubio becomes the GOP’s candidate, he is likely to deliver Florida with its crucial Electoral College votes. If conservatives do not want to see Hillary Clinton as president of the United States, they should carefully consider who can beat her in November 2016.