To many outside observers, the wave of seasoned Republican officials and strategists sounding increasingly comfortable with Donald Trump as the GOP’s presidential nominee is a sign of surrender. Whether it’s Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad rooting for Ted Cruz to lose the Iowa caucuses or Orrin Hatch “coming around a little bit” on Trump’s candidacy or the paucity of money spent attacking Trump on the airwaves, it feels like official Washington has sided with Trump over Cruz.
In reality, many are trying to salvage the campaign of Sen. Marco Rubio (or any other more-mainstream alternative), and are betting that it’s easier to defeat Trump in a one-on-one showdown than Cruz emboldened by a strong showing in Iowa. To diminish Trump at this point, Republican strategist Alex Castellanos wrote in an email Monday, “perversely helps both Cruz and Trump, which is not what many conservatives intend.”
The thinking goes as follows: If Cruz loses Iowa, he peters out in New Hampshire and doesn’t pose a risk of finishing in a respectable second place. That allows the establishment winner out of the Granite State to build momentum as the anti-Trump alternative. A decent number of Cruz’s supporters, when asked to choose a second candidate, gravitate to Rubio. Polls show many more of Trump supporters, by contrast, would support Cruz. And even with Trump’s improving favorability numbers within the GOP, there are more Republican voters who wouldn’t vote for him under any circumstances than say the same about the senator from Texas.
These strategists are looking at Trump’s increasingly bellicose attacks against Cruz with glee. In their view, only Trump can successfully put a dent in Cruz’s sky-high favorability among Republicans, which is a precondition to blocking him from the nomination.
But there’s one big problem with the theory being embraced by many party pooh-bahs. It risks handing the election to Trump on a silver platter—helping knock out his strongest rival while watching helplessly as more-moderate alternatives blow each other up in the process. The wishful thinking behind such a strategy is that Cruz is utterly unelectable, while Trump is unpredictable enough to win a general election. In reality, Cruz looks like an electable standard-bearer, while Trump could blow the party to smithereens.
Cruz, despite being loathed by his colleagues in Washington, is a better general-election candidate than his detractors believe. His general election favorability ratings are currently respectable, and he runs competitively with Clinton in early matchups. His professional resume and academic credentials are exceptional. The political environment for Democrats is dismal, and is as ill-suited for an establishment figure like Hillary Clinton as it is for a hardline conservative. Despite their differences, Cruz’s voting record in the Senate is not dissimilar from Rubio’s. Both have near-equal vote ratings from the Chamber of Commerce, American Conservative Union, and Club for Growth. And if Cruz is as phony as his critics argue—former McCain adviser Mark Salter wrote, “I don’t think any senator really believes Ted Cruz is a conviction politician, save for his conviction that he ought to be president”—he would likely inch to the middle in a general election.
Trump, on the other hand, is a well-defined celebrity with the worst favorability ratings of anyone running. He loses to both Clinton and Sanders in general-election matchups. His nomination would do more to spur Hispanic voters to the polls than any Democratic get-out-the-vote operation. Any gains he’d make among working-class white voters would be more than offset by the swing-state suburban voters that he’s already alienated. Some opportunistic Republican supporters would jump on a Trump bandwagon, but he’d tear the party from its conservative moorings, as National Review argued in a special issue last week.
It’s a clear sign of how emotion is clouding strategic thinking when The New York Times reports that many Cruz critics believe it would be “preferable to rent the party to Trump for four months … than risk turning it over to Cruz for at least four years.” Some Republicans admit they’d rather lose to Hillary Clinton than win with Cruz. That’s a remarkable statement.
The alternate view of the primary is one I laid out in the Hotline this month, arguing that Trump is a momentum candidate—and his success depends on the perception of strength. Throughout the campaign, his strong poll numbers have undergirded the endless media coverage he’s received and sucked attention from his rivals. They’ve been the hook at his campaign rallies. So if he’s defeated by Cruz in Iowa—even after leading in the latest round of polls—he suddenly looks like a loser. That doesn’t mean his support disappears, but it would allow the other candidates to reorient the race in their favor. Most importantly, it prevents an early Trump two-fer in Iowa and New Hampshire. Trump himself clearly views the race the same way, camping out in Iowa in the final stretch of the campaign instead of strategically lowering expectations in his weakest state.
If Trump loses Iowa, Cruz would be the clear short-term winner. He’d hope to parlay his success into a second-place finish in New Hampshire and a commanding showing in the Southern primaries. But a Cruz victory in Iowa hardly locks up the nomination. His social conservatism is still a mismatch in New Hampshire, where his success is dependent on a continued split between all the establishment candidates, and in later Midwestern and northeastern primaries. And for Rubio, it’s not clear that a weak second-place finish (to Trump) is any better than a muddled third-place finish behind Cruz. If Rubio hopes to be the mainstream alternative, he’ll have to prove his viability on his own—and not depend on Cruz self-destructing in Iowa.
Projecting the trajectory of the GOP nomination is an art, not science. For a party that underestimated Trump’s appeal from the beginning, it’s hard to see how GOP leaders can be so self-assured of a bank-shot strategy that relies on other candidates’ failures, not their preferred candidates’ successes.
One thing is clear: Republican leaders detest Cruz so much that they’re willing to run the risk an unelectable Republican will glide to the nomination. Instead of coming up with a concerted strategy to deal with Trump from the beginning, they’re now playing with fire with some last-ditch improvising—the consequences of which could burn the party down.