The focus of this piece is on Cruz’s general election viability. When it comes to the primary, I’m not going to start handicapping the viable candidates seeking the Republican nomination yet; I’ll only say that I don’t see any reason not to include Cruz in that group, as of now. Viable candidates have conventional credentials and are in the mainstream of their party on questions of public policy. Cruz, from what we know now, qualifies. With four years in elected office by January 2017, he’ll be in a similar boat with Barack Obama (who, granted, had held lower office as well) and Mitt Romney (who at least had four full years before his campaign began). And while Cruz surely is planted at an edge of the Republican mainstream, I don’t see any reason, so far, to believe he’s close to falling off that edge.
He suggests that centrism is overrated in the General Election.
The bottom line is that candidates just don’t matter all that much in presidential elections. Yes, a reputation for ideological extremism hurts, but it appears to hurt maybe 2 or 3 percentage points. Yes, George McGovern and Barry Goldwater had reputations for ideological extremism and were buried, but in both cases it was by a popular president during good times. Ronald Reagan wasn’t slowed much (although, still, some) by his conservative image. Don’t get me wrong: There’s no evidence for the opposite theory, that avoiding the squishy center (in either direction) will magically produce an avalanche of new voters who otherwise would have stayed home. Going moderate is better. It just isn’t all that much better.
Now, on top of that, it’s an open question whether Cruz would really wind up with a reputation as more of a fringe figure than any other plausible nominee. For one thing, the Republican nomination process may bring out inflamed rhetoric, but it’s also likely to create converging policy views among the candidates. Indeed, it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario in which Cruz wins the nomination as the hero of conservatives, which then leaves him far more free to pivot to the center in the general election race than a less trusted candidate might have. Granted, the other possibility is very real as well – Cruz spends the nomination fight solidifying his conservative reputation, and then finds it sticks with him no matter what he does later. And it’s worth noting that Mitt Romney’s reputation as relatively moderate managed to survive everything he did in in the entire 2012 election cycle.
Then came this week’s filibuster showdown. The death of New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg reduced the Democrats, temporarily, to 54 senators. But the caucus, with at most three exceptions, agreed to move ahead to end the 60-vote threshold on non-lifetime nominees. When you talked to Democrats, you understood why they’d built this new consensus—they were fed up with the minority party blocking votes then crowing about their brilliance. Republicans, backed into a corner, agreed to another deal cut by John McCain, which allowed votes on all of the held-up Democratic nominees. By the end of the week, the CPFB director, labor secretary, and EPA chief were confirmed by largely partisan votes, with no filibusters.
That’s the story of Ted Cruz’s strategic acumen in the Senate. The paradox is that the theatrics that completely backfire in D.C. are embraced by activists in the bright world outside.
The immediate answer is Democrats can’t seem to find strong Democrats to run in states more Republican than the nation as a whole, as measured by the 2012 presidential vote. Democrats have yet to field any candidates in either Montana such as Brian Schweitzer or West Virginia, even though Democrats currently represent those states. Indeed, the majority candidates Democrats are finding to run in red states are lackluster. Even the better than average candidates such as incumbentMary Landrieu of Louisiana are facing mediocre polling numbers.
Democrats’ red state blues are a big deal considering Democrats have to defend seven seats more Republican than the nation as a whole, while Republicans only have to beat back a Democratic challenge in one state won by President Obama. Seven minus one equals the six seats the Republicans need for control.
Yet, I would argue that 2014 recruitment failures are as much about the current state of each party’s coalitions than anything particular to this election cycle. There are now more states that lean Republican than lean Democratic. Twenty-six states are more Republican than the nation as a whole. Only 23 states are more Democratic. Virginia votes with the nation. Translating that to Senate seats, we’d expect something like a 53 to 47 Republican advantage on presidential vote alone.
Nate Silver and Keith Olbermann’s move to ESPN offers an interesting business plan: Sports commentary all the time, and political commentary for ABC in the election season.