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Further Thoughts on Ted Cruz’s “Sharp Elbows”

- June 3, 2013

Jon Bernstein has a reply to my earlier post on Ted Cruz’s tendency to criticize his fellow Republicans.  I suggested that this was, on balance, not helpful for a presidential bid, if he were to run.  Jon is more sanguine:

bq. But feuding with John McCain, and having other Republican senators uncomfortable with his excesses? That’s not going to be what stops him.

I’m sticking to my guns.  Here is the historical pattern that Cruz confronts.  First, in every contested Republican presidential primary since 198o, the party has nominated a relative moderate in the field.  See 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2008, and 2012.  Cruz is not a moderate, relative to the rest of his party.  Second, as Martin Cohen and colleagues show in The Party Decides, the longer a party is out of power, the more likely they are to nominate a moderate.  I wrote about this here.  To be sure, this finding derives from a pretty small sample.  Nevertheless, based on the historical pattern, Cruz starts out as a relative underdog to win the GOP nomination in 2016, even before he’s opened his mouth on the Senate floor.  It seems worth his while to think about that fact if he wants to be president.

If he does want that, then he needs to build his appeal within the party.  Jon doesn’t think that’s too hard:

bq. All of which means that even if those who actually have to work with Ted Cruz may not like him, there are still plenty of party leaders who may interpret his attacks on “party leaders” as those of an ally ready to help them storm the gates, rather than as a threat to their insider status.

But I’d submit that appealing to these people is not what Cruz needs to do to win the nomination.  Jon is essentially describing Cruz’s base.  But any nominee needs broader support in the party — support beyond his natural base.  In fact, Cohen and colleagues show that it is support from party leaders outside a candidate’s base that is truly potent: it appears to drive fundraising, media coverage, and ultimately poll numbers.  Given how Cohen et al. measure the “bases” of various candidates, this would mean that Cruz needs support beyond the Senate — so my argument certainly isn’t that he needs to woo John McCain and Susan Collins in particular.  My point is that the kinds of behavior that would earn him the endorsements from Senators who are not his conservative kindred are likely to earn him the support of other party leaders who aren’t in the Senate and are outside his natural base.  (And, by the way, that’s a base he can’t even count on if Paul runs.)  And the support of these other leaders is what would be most valuable.  That’s why I think Cruz’s M.O. isn’t optimal.  He’s antagonizing some of the same people that would be most useful to have in his corner.

Let’s be clear, there are no iron laws at work here, and I’m not making categorical statements.  My only point is probabilistic: that Cruz’s behavior, if it continues, is doing more to decrease his chance of winning the GOP nomination than to increase it.