A new poll by PPP finds that Ted Cruz is now the top choice of Republican primary voters to be their candidate for President in 2016. 20 percent of the Republican primary voters surveyed favor Cruz. Rand Paul is next with 17 percent. He is followed by Chris Christie (14 percent), Jeb Bush (11 percent), Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan (10 percent), Bobby Jindal (4 percent), and Rick Santorum and Scott Walker (3 percent).
I first wrote about Cruz as a possible 2016 candidate five months ago. I argued that, given the warts on those being talked about as leading Republican presidential possibilities, there was room for Cruz to emerge.
Emerge he has.
Right now, Cruz has two big advantages over the prospective field. First, he occupies a good space. As I see it, Chris Christie is widely viewed as too moderate for the Party. Rand Paul is widely viewed as too libertarian, especially insofar as his libertarianism manifests itself in the realm of foreign policy and national security. Chances are that the Republican candidate in 2016 will occupy a portion of the considerable space between Christie and Paul.
The two leading figures in that space, at present, are Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Rubio has severely compromised himself by leading the charge for amnesty.
Rubio wants to offset this problem by taking hard line conservative positions on just about everything else. But he can’t get to the right of Cruz. Moreover, given Rubio’s flip-flops on immigration, the sincerity of Rubio’s positions on other issues is subject to question. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Cruz’s hard line conservatism.
Cruz’s second big advantage is his willingness and ability to take a leadership role in advancing core conservative positions. As Ross Douthat shrewdly observes, Cruz has defined himself as a national figure not by taking positions on questions that divide his party, but by picking issues where the party is basically united — Obamacare, gun control, taxes — and “playing the maximalist.”
Rubio has shown leadership qualities too. Unfortunately, he manifested them most forcefully in service to Chuck Schumer.
Any other prospective candidate trying to occupy the ground between Chris Christie and Rand Paul will be playing “catch-up,” and is likely to pale by comparison to Cruz. To obtain oxygen, such a candidate probably will have to stake out a position clearly to the left of Cruz (but to the right of Christie). That space is there for the taking, and it was a happy place to be for John McCain and Mitt Romney. In 2015-16, however, it may feel besieged.
But let us not overlook the potential difficulties in Cruz’s position. If we get a government shutdown and it redounds to the disadvantage of Republicans in the 2014 election, Cruz may cease to be viable as a 2016 presidential candidate.
Quite apart from this arguably remote possibility, Cruz has become, quite willingly, a lightening rod. If, once serious polling commences, he doesn’t show as well as other leading Republicans in match-ups with Hillary Clinton (for example), he may well suffer among primary voters.
Perceived electability seems to be a big deal with Republican primary voters, and understandably so. Thus, one can imagine Republicans opting for a “Cruz-lite,” as Democrats opted for a “Howard Dean-lite” in 2004.
The big imponderable is how well Cruz will connect with ordinary Republican voters over the course of an extended campaign. I think there are reasons for optimism and reasons for pessimism in this regard, but it’s premature to air them at such an early date.