George Will recently published an interesting critique of Republican Presidential hopeful Ted Cruz. In it, he writes that Cruz can't win without going after what Cruz has called the "mushy middle" (based on a piece from Politico). Will says,
"The Republican nominee must crack the ice that has frozen the electoral map. Cruz cannot do that by getting more votes from traditional Republican constituencies."
While I would say that the people quoted by Politico don't have things quite right, they could win in spite of themselves, depending on just what the "mushy middle" turns out to be. They say he will target tea party and evangelical voters, as if he intends to ignore everybody else. That would likely be a recipe for disaster. But could he really mean to do that? I don't think so.
"Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center identifies “four faces of the Republican Party” — evangelical Christians, very conservative but secular voters, somewhat conservative voters and moderates. He says the largest group, about 35 percent to 40 percent of the national party, are the somewhat conservatives. And in presidential years, moderates are the second-largest (25 percent to 30 percent). The somewhat conservatives “are found in similar proportions in every state” and “always back the winner.”" [emphasis added]
There are two objectives of any campaign. (1) Convince people you are the best person for the job, and (2) get them to actually vote for you. The interview in Politico was primarily about the strategy to achieve the second goal, specifically among conservative voters who didn't vote for Romney in 2012. But it's possible to attack both goals at the same time. The common knowledge that he's too far right to win because he can't achieve the first objective can be challenged.
First, he is already in position to bring back those conservatives who failed to support Romney. They are believed to be evangelicals and the very conservative "tea party faithful." And they are professed to be the primary target of goal number 2.
Second, somewhat conservative center-right and many moderate Republicans would not have a problem with his philosophy of government and principles, and they could accept his tactics, given that Republican senior tacticians have failed miserably for about 10 years. Most of them would be enthusiastic about it. He can succeed with both groups.
It seems to me that Cruz is uniquely situated in the coming primary and Presidential campaigns. Compared to many other candidates, current and prior, he can run with the same messages in both of them. He doesn't need to run to the right in the primaries and to the center in the general. He can campaign "as is" to achieve the goal of convincing voters that he has the right ideas for the country.
Using Olsen's four categories, Cruz's advisors seem to believe he needs to get the evangelicals and very conservative secular voters to the polling place, rather than to convince them. Still, all four of those categories of Republican voters are the ones he needs to convince to nominate him. If Olsen is right, the somewhat conservatives must be addressed during the primaries, but they will support whomever is the eventual candidate.
So the remaining moderates and left-centrists, whether Republicans or not, are the additional constituency he really needs to get on his side in both campaigns, and as Reagan showed, they CAN be got. But how?
Voters compare candidates. Give them substance, style, and performance, and you can convince them to choose you. They compared their experience with Carter to the promise of Reagan, and they chose Reagan on all three criteria. They effectively did the same with McCain and Obama, with substance almost being a non-factor. IMHO, Romney simply came up too short on campaign performance to outweigh Obama's style and incumbency, even though he was way ahead on substance.
If I'm right, what is there about Cruz (or any Republican) to convince centrist Reagan Democrats and even other frequently left-of-center voters, to pick the Republican? These voters recognize that politicians from both sides pander to them, so phony promises and posing doesn't work. If we call our general target "uncommitted voters," what might they be looking for?
Appearance counts, but not much can be done to spruce up an already presentable candidate. Cruz, Rubio, and Walker are all a bit ahead of the rest in this area, probably not least because they're younger. It's part of style, which of course includes demeanor, presence, speaking ability and apparent competence, and personal behavior during the campaign and during debates. Cruz holds up well in the style criterion. Edge: Cruz.
Performance means "performance during the campaign." We've seen Cruz can win competitive elections, which is more than his known likely Presidential competition can say. It definitely includes the instinct to recognize and attack Democrat weaknesses, which our last two candidates have been loath to do. Even his critics say Cruz does a fine job of laying out his ideas understandably and debating the shortcomings of opponents effectively. Edge: Cruz.
SubstanceThat brings us to substance, which is also where the Wills of the central-right punditry find him wanting. "Too extreme. He shut down the government. Too uncompromising. Poor tactician. Too smart for his own good."
But what if many of the uncommitted voters are that way because they've been given nothing to commit to? Shifting positions, unclear positions, hidden agendas (once exposed), are what make commitment impossible. Voters will even opt for imaginary positions if they think they mean something. Hope and Change, anybody?
Cruz has been laying down a consistent record of upholding his professed conservative principles, even in the face of adverse publicity and resistance from establishment Republicans. Voters can appreciate courage and firmness, even if they differ with the direction. While this may or may not give Cruz an advantage over a given Democrat, his substance may be nowhere near the impediment Will and others presume.
It also seems that Reagan Democrats can agree with his principles and may prefer them to the failings of the current Progressive Democrat administration, as they did with Reagan v. Carter. There are more conservative-leaning voters than there are progressives, and they will appreciate what his positions are. Edge: That's the question, isn't it? Cruz.
Will it work?
Reagan was elected in a different era, but there is evidence that American voters still honor, respect, and will vote for a candidate who can convince them he says what he means and means what he says, even if they disagree with him on some details. If so, Cruz doesn't have to target anybody. He just has to continue being himself.
If Will is right, and Cruz addresses only evangelicals and very conservative Republicans, his candidacy is probably doomed from the start. But if Cruz presents himself reasonably to the somewhat conservative and moderate voters (including Democrats), the list of five big competitive states that Will described (Ohio, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and Virginia) can be made to grow, and what is considered by common knowledge to be his certain failure can be averted.
We've been exploring whether Cruz can attract enough somewhat conservative and moderate voters to win. A question that hasn't been covered: Can any other Republican candidate win without bringing evangelicals and very conservative Republicans out to the polls? Can they win without having firm conservative positions on the major issues?