WASHINGTON – Despite Ted Cruz’s rallying cry that his double-digit victory in Wisconsin last week would be a “turning point” in the Republican presidential race, scant signs exist that the Texas conservative is gaining steam in critical upcoming contests in the Northeast, where front-runner Donald Trump leads.
The latest polls give Trump leads of 20 or more percentage points in New York, which votes on April 19, and in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Connecticut, which vote on April 26. In each of these states – where John Kasich places second, ahead of Cruz – no perceivable post-Wisconsin bounce is evident for Cruz.
Although the Northeast was always expected to be tough terrain for Cruz, the murky path ahead highlights the tough task facing the candidate who is aiming to deny Trump a majority of delegates and stop him at a contested convention. The Texan has often struggled to garner substantial appeal beyond evangelical and very conservative voters, which remains one reason he’s cold comfort to a swath of Republican politicians, donors and elites who see Trump as an electoral catastrophe for the party but don’t think Cruz would be better.
“Unfortunately, Cruz does not appeal to voters outside of the base at this point and it looks difficult seeing him pivot to appeal to general election voters. This could lead to another Goldwater scenario,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, referring to the 44-state landslide defeat of conservative nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964.
Fears about “electability” help explain why Cruz still hasn’t emerged as the consensus alternative to Trump among a number Republican elites, even though he’s the only rival who has shown a sustained ability to compete with – and in many states, defeat – Trump and out-organize him behind the scenes in state delegate fights.
“I think (a general election victory) is really unlikely for Cruz,” said Republican lobbyist and strategist John Feehery. “It’s hard to see how he builds a winning coalition . I see no upside to a Cruz candidacy and a lot of downside.” Feehery said he’d prefer to see Trump nominated, giving the businessman better odds of reshaping the electoral map and winning the presidency.
Of 10 recent surveys testing Cruz versus the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, seven showed Clinton leading by between 2 and 9 percentage points, two showed the candidates tied and one showed Cruz winning by 3 points. Trump fared worse against Clinton.
“I think (Cruz) would do better than Trump and worse than a more traditional Republican,” said Ken Goldstein, a politics professor at the University of San Francisco and polling analyst for Bloomberg Politics. “Republicans are trying to consolidate behind Cruz to beat Trump, but Cruz would by a significant margin still be the most conservative Republican nominee – or the nominee most out of the mainstream – in modern presidential election history.”
A recent Quinnipiac poll finds Cruz leading Clinton by 5 percentage points among independents nationwide, but 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney won independents by 5 points and lost the presidential election. Among married women, whom Romney won by 7 points, Cruz is viewed slightly more negatively than Clinton, according to a recent Bloomberg Politics poll.
Whit Ayres, a pollster who advised Marco Rubio’s failed presidential bid, argued in an op-ed assailing Trump’s chances in a general election that winning the popular vote for a Republican candidate requires carrying 30 percent of nonwhites or 65 percent of whites (which he notes is a larger share than Reagan won in his 49-state 1984 re-election landslide).
Against Clinton, Cruz would get 18 percent of nonwhite voters and 51 percent of white voters, according to the Quinnipiac survey.
That survey, contrasted with 2012 exit poll data, shows little indication Cruz would perform better against Clinton than Romney did against President Barack Obama. Cruz under-performs Romney’s showing by 5 percentage points among whites and by 2 points among men. Cruz ties Romney’s showing among voters 65 and older and out-performs Romney by 2 points among women.
“The big force in this country is the changing face of the American electorate. I see little evidence to suggest Cruz will do well with young people, single women, African Americans or, even though he is one, Latinos,” Goldstein said. “Even if we stipulate that he’s going to do better with white people than Romney did, he can’t do better enough to win. And I’m not even sure he’s going to do better with white people.”
“If Donald Trump didn’t exist and Ted Cruz was in the position that Donald Trump is in, we’d be talking about the Republican establishment coming together to stop Ted Cruz because he’d be a disaster,” he said.
A number of Republican establishment figures do, however, take comfort in viewing a Cruz nomination as better for saving GOP candidates down the ballot than would be a Trump nomination.
Cruz has tried to highlight electability as an argument for his candidacy, positing that he’s best-positioned to unite the party and win in November.
“Republicans want to win. If we nominate Donald Trump, we lose. Hillary Clinton wins by double digits,” Cruz told Bloomberg Politics last week in Wisconsin. “And what we’re seeing here in Wisconsin and nationally is Republicans unifying behind our positive, optimistic, forward-looking vision.”
Unlike the last half-dozen Republican nominees, Cruz strategy relies not on appealing to the middle-of-the-road voters but rather on “moving out conservatives in mass numbers” in swing states such as Florida and Ohio to overcome demographic trends that help Democrats.
“If you’re a moderate, if your whole goal is to reach across the middle of the aisle to get more votes – first of all the gulf that you’re reaching across is very narrow now,” Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe said in late January, pointing to studies that show a polarization in voting patterns and a decline in swing voters over recent election cycles. “These are going to be base elections.”
Though many Republican strategists reject this theory, Roe posited that boosting conservative turnout is more palatable in a divided country where different sets of voters tend to get their news from different outlets. He noted that winning independents couldn’t save Romney.
“It’s fallacy that that’s actually going to be the way (for Republicans to win the White House). What has happened is the parties have grown apart because the American people have grown apart,” he said. “You can now go your entire life without talking to a member of the opposite party. That is new. That is a modern phenomenon.”
Clinton’s campaign and her Democratic allies are preparing for the prospect of a Cruz nomination. The Clinton-allied super PAC Priorities USA has narrowed its opposition focus to Trump and Cruz. Guy Cecil, the group’s co-chair and chief strategist, previewed Democrats’ strategy: paint Cruz as a radical nominee outside the U.S. mainstream through a mix of TV, digital and radio ads as well as grassroots voter contact to mobilize the party base.
“The challenge with Ted Cruz is that he’s extreme on so many issues that we’re really going to have to be strategic when we talk about his approach to governing the country, or not governing the country,” Cecil said. “Ted Cruz is in many cases even more extreme than Donald Trump. On a range of economic and social justice issues it’s almost impossible to be to the right of him.”
Among the plausible Democratic weapons Cecil mentioned as targeting Cruz: his call for investigating and prosecuting Planned Parenthood; his 2010 description of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme; his defense of the 2013 government shutdown to try to defund Obamacare; his call to deport all 11 million undocumented people; his tax plan which includes disproportionately large benefits for the wealthy; and his opposition to abortion even in the case of rape or incest (exceptions backed by every Republican nominee dating back to Reagan).
“I believe that you can be pro-life and win an election. But if you are going to tell a woman who has been raped she has to carry the child of a rapist, you’re losing most Americans,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told a gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Washington in December.
Graham endorsed Cruz last month in a bid to stop Trump.
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