Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz have something in common. Both have an electoral strategy predicated on the ability of a purist candidate to revolutionize the electorate—bringing droves of chronic non-voters to the polls because at last they have a choice, not an echo—and along the way transforming the political system. Sanders can point to his large crowds and impressive, even astonishing, success at tapping into a small-donor base that exceeds, in breadth and depth, the remarkable one built in 2008 by Barack Obama. Cruz points to his extraordinarily sophisticated voter-identification operation, one that certainly seemed to do the trick in Iowa.
But is there any real evidence that there is a hidden “sleeper cell” of potential voters who are waiting for the signal to emerge and transform the electorate? No. Small-donor contributions are meaningful and a sign of underlying enthusiasm among a slice of the electorate, but they represent a tiny sliver even of that slice; Ron Paul’s success at fundraising (and his big crowds at rallies) misled many analysts into believing that he would make a strong showing in Republican primaries when he ran for president. He flopped.
Is there a huge core of committed ideological conservatives who have not voted before because they had only “moderates” on the ballot? Other than the fact that no objective person could look at the policy positions of John McCain and Mitt Romney as moderate, there is no evidence; the only real parallel to draw on for the theory is Barry Goldwater in 1964. Important as voter identification and get-out-the-vote efforts are, they do not convince chronic non-voters to vote. And, of course, a truly purist ideological campaign would stir a clear counter-reaction on the other side, diluting its impact.