New York Times (Opinion)
By Ross Douthat
February 4, 2016
It’s rare for a politician to be overshadowed in victory, and even rarer when that victory is actually an upset. But Ted Cruz managed that trick in Iowa: Despite pulling out a victory when almost everyone expected Donald J. Trump to win, he found himself overshadowed twice in the coverage that followed— first by Trump’s unexpected flop, and second by Marco Rubio’s unexpectedly strong third-place finish.
It was the same in the prediction markets. On Feb. 1, just before Iowa voted, Trump was given (absurdly) a 50 percent chance of winning the Republican nomination by bettors, and Rubio a 35 percent chance. No sooner had the Iowa results come in than the two men switched places — a vertiginous plunge for Trump, a leap upward for Rubio.
As for the man who actually won the caucuses? His odds ticked up — from 8 percent to 14 percent.
Why the lack of respect for Cruz? It’s true that he isn’t the first candidate to ride strong evangelical support to victory in Iowa, and the track records of Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee don’t exactly inspire confidence. It’s true that he’s widely despised by his own party’s leadership, to a degree that some Republican machers might even prefer living dangerously with Trump to nominating Cruz. And it’s true that his record and reputation make him a significant general election gamble, in a party that hasn’t taken that kind of risk since Barry Goldwater.
But if Cruz’s weaknesses were good reasons to give him low odds when this whole process started, they aren’t good reasons anymore. In a field that’s fluid and shrinking, he may not be the absolute favorite, but his path to the nomination is as plausible as anybody else’s at this point.
First, he isn’t Huckabee or Santorum. They were true insurgents, desperately underfunded candidates who staked everything on Iowa and then lacked a plan to follow through. Cruz has the money and the organization that they lacked, and notwithstanding his “Duck Dynasty” endorsement and Senate enemies, he has a network of elite support that can carry him through a long campaign.
Second, the calendar promises him momentum. South Carolina is a good state for him, and then the large so-called S.E.C. primary looms on March 1, rich in evangelical votes. The S.E.C. states aren’t winner take all, so Cruz can’t build an insurmountable delegate lead even if he runs the table. But on the morning of March 2, the media may start covering him as if he’s the front-runner.
Third, he’s already consolidated most of the constituency he needs to go deep into the campaign. Rand Paul’s departure, in particular, is a reminder of how effectively Cruz had already cut into his libertarian, anti-Washington and anti-interventionist base. Rubio hasn’t yet done the same to Jeb Bush and the rest of the center-right pack: His Iowa finish helps, but unlike Cruz, he needs to prove something in New Hampshire to start pushing major rivals out of the race.
Then finally, if Rubio does consolidate support, Cruz has clear lines of attack against him. The waters have been muddied a bit on immigration, but the Florida senator will always be an architect of the Gang of Eight bill, and the Texas senator will always have opposed it. On foreign policy, too, Cruz’s Jacksonian, “bomb ’em all” positioning on the Middle East seems more in tune with the party’s post-Iraq war mood than Rubio’s tendency toward a George W. Bush-style crusading idealism.
Now, of course, Cruz has all kinds of weaknesses as well — more than a few of which were on display in his rambling, preening, melodramatic victory speech on Monday night. He’s unloved by the press, which matters even in a Republican primary. He’s less personally charismatic and almost certainly a tougher general-election sell than Rubio. His tax plan, which would raise the cost of living significantly for seniors, is vulnerable to potentially devastating attacks. If it came down to a two-man race, he would probably lose big in the late, blue, winner-take-all states, potentially overwhelming whatever delegate lead he’d accumulated up to that point.
But as you may have heard, this isn’t a two-man race. Trump still prowls the stage, Trump still leads New Hampshire, and it’s Trump who may ultimately hold the key to Cruz’s hopes.
The Donald’s support, so far as pollsters can tell, is concentrated in an arc that runs from the Deep South through the Rust Belt and into the Northeast. So the ideal scenario for the Texas senator involves Trump underperforming in the old Confederacy, but staying strong enough in bluer states to deny some of them to Rubio (or any other establishment-friendly candidate).
That scenario might run like this. First, Trump wins pretty easily in New Hampshire, putting to rest the possibility that this will collapse quickly into a Cruz-Rubio battle. Then, the real estate mogul fades just enough that he doesn’t take too many Southern delegates from Cruz during the S.E.C. primary, but doesn’t fade so much that he’s in any way tempted to drop out.
Then as the race moves to states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois and New York, Trump keeps winning a lot of working-class moderates and secular voters, enough to either take some of those states for himself or let Cruz steal a couple of blue-state wins with only 35 or 40 percent of the vote.
Right now, admittedly, Trump doesn’t seem inclined to cooperate with this script. He’s spent the last day or so raging against Cruz’s supposed caucus cheating, rather than pivoting to attack Rubio and the moderates in New Hampshire. And you could imagine him continuing along these lines all the way to a dramatic exit, rendering Cruz radioactive with the Trump bloc along the way.
But with a figure as mercurial as Trump, there’s no reason to assume that any pattern of attacks will hold for very long. If Rubio rises, and Trump stays in, it’s only a matter of time before they clash.
Whereas Cruz has already survived one collision with Trump. And Cruz has already won a state. No other candidate can make either boast. And so long as that remains the case, no other candidate can claim to be a more likely nominee.
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