Cruz wowed Christian conservatives at the Value Voters Summit in Washington.

Why Ted Cruz Is a Longshot

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Ted Cruz's presidential campaign, which began more or less the day after he was elected to the Senate almost two years ago, is becoming a bit more official. "It's 90/10 he's in," a Cruz aide told National Journal's Tim Alberta. That's not exactly news, because Cruz has been campaigning hard for years. It's part of the game candidates play -- most runs get announced unofficially at least once or twice, and sometimes half a dozen times, before the official declaration.

Cruz is terrific at generating attention, and at firing up conservative voters. He won the straw poll at the annual Value Voters Summit over the weekend after delivering a well-received speech to the assembled Christian conservative activists. In fact, he regularly gives the speech that draws the most enthusiasm at any gathering of conservatives.

I continue to believe, however, that it's extremely unlikely that Cruz will become the Republican nominee. He fits my formula for a viable nomination, though with little to spare: As a first term senator, he would have four years in elected statewide office by the time he was sworn in president, and he's within the Republican mainstream on public policy issues (though he would claim that others who appear to hold similar positions are practically liberals).

Yet, of all the viable candidates, I give Cruz the longest odds. Not just because he's an irresponsible demagogue, or because he's made enemies in the Senate. And not just because he's almost certainly a weaker general election candidate given that he's by far the one most likely to be perceived by voters as an ideological extremist.

The biggest reason Cruz's nomination bid would be unlikely to succeed is that Republican party actors mostly identify him with the October 2013 government shutdown, which, apart from a small number of radicals, is perceived as a hugely damaging unforced error. Remember, not only were Republicans widely blamed for the shutdown, it also had the side effect of distracting the press from the disastrous first weeks of the Obamacare exchange rollout.

Even party actors who are itching to nominate a real conservative after suffering through Mitt Romney and John McCain (and in many cases having decided that George W. Bush was no conservative after all) are unlikely to choose a candidate whose strategic judgment has proved to be suicidal for the movement. And, fortunately for them, there are lots of perfectly conservative alternatives ... even if Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence or Mike Huckabee can't quite stir them the way Tail Gunner Ted can.

Anyone with any pragmatic tendencies is likely to oppose basing the party's hopes on Cruz. And there shouldn't be any shortage of candidates who can appeal to both pragmatic and idealistic conservatives. I wouldn't be surprised if Cruz makes a lot of noise in 2015 and even in the primaries and caucuses in 2016. But that's about it. Lots of candidates win primaries without really having a solid shot at the nomination, as Newt Gingrich could tell you.

Party actors are going to insist on a candidate they can trust to work with them once in office, and someone who won't embarrass the party. There's strong evidence that Cruz can't be trusted to do either.

  1. If there's one thing Cruz is good at, it's capturing the image of being a True Conservative, just as Mitt Romney was good at projecting an image of moderation. Being perceived as an ideological extremist isn't disqualifying in a general election, but it could cost two or three percentage points, which is a pretty huge penalty for a party to inflect upon itself.

  2. OK, Newt may really believe he was close to winning in 2012. But Cruz may experience a similar pattern: Newt was able to rile up voters when his nomination seemed unlikely, but every time he started doing well, pragmatic conservative opinion leaders made it clear there were better choices.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net