According to the most recent polls, a clear majority of GOP-leaning respondents favor unconventional candidates (Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson) or candidates despised by the Republican establishment (Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee). The Republican nominating electorate is in a rebellious mood. The question is whether these rebels can be united.
Of those candidates, only Huckabee and Cruz have anything close to the preparatory background of any previous president. Huckabee has (unfortunately) chosen to run a campaign aimed at refreshing his entertainment brand among white evangelicals. That leaves Ted Cruz. The irony is that Ted Cruz, the firebrand who has enraged his own Senate colleagues, might be too conventional a politician to unite the GOP's majority of alienated voters.
Between them, Trump and Carson currently get just under fifty percent support among potential Republican voters. Cruz has been careful to avoid attacking Trump, and Cruz would be a good fit for that fraction of Tea Party-affiliating Trump supporters who like Trump because the billionaire reality show star “fights.” Cruz actually hopes to win the presidency, and therefore he can't be as flamboyant as Trump. But within those limits, Cruz has been the most obtrusively belligerent of the presidential candidates who have held elected office.
Cruz would also have a plausible path to winning over Ben Carson's Christian, social conservative voters when the combination of scrutiny and Carson's unfiltered mode of expression catch up to the Doctor. Cruz just needs for that Carson collapse to happen before the Iowa Caucuses. There is still time.
But the fraction of Trump supporters who belong to the Tea Party, combined with Christian, social conservatism-first voters, are probably not enough to win Cruz the nomination. Cruz would need the support of the share of Trump voters that identify as moderate. As Henry Olsen has pointed out, Cruz is not yet the second choice of those voters. How can the most contentiously conservative Republican senator win over these moderate Trump supporters?
It sounds impossible, but there is an important distinction to keep in mind. There are moderates and there are moderates. The Republican moderate is usually seen as someone who likes John Huntsman. These voters range from the upper middle-class to the wealthy, tend to be socially liberal, favor free trade and “comprehensive immigration reform” (meaning upfront amnesty and increased future immigration—including increased low-skill immigration), and they disdain their social inferiors within the party. These voters see themselves as winners in life, but also feel like they receive insufficient deference from their party.
My sense is that Trump's voters are a different kind of Republican-leaning moderate. These voters often have less formal education, are more likely to be wage-earners, are less likely to favor entitlement cuts, are opposed to increased immigration, and are unwilling to trade higher energy prices today for the promise of lower global mean temperatures towards the end of this century. This is how Trump became the candidate who gets the largest share of support among moderate Republicans, while simultaneously being the least popular candidate among moderates overall. These two kinds of Republican moderates can’t stand one another.
Here, then, is Cruz’s opening. If he can unify Tea Partiers, social conservatives, and working-class moderates, he can win the nomination.
The only problem is that those three groups aren't a great fit. Trump's working-class moderates tend to be less skeptical of government spending than Tea Partiers, and they tend to be more secular than Christian social conservatives. Tea Partiers, social conservatives, and working-class moderates are all alienated by the Republican establishment (and Washington in general), but any candidacy that appeals to all three of them would be unusual. It would have to be able to appeal to upper middle-class evangelicals who prioritize the abortion issue, and wage-earners who are indifferent to religious practice and don't care much about abortion policy. It would have to speak to Tea Partiers who have grave doubts about the constitutionality of Social Security, and working-class moderates who fear that any change to old age entitlements will leave them helpless and on their own. An alliance of the Republican rebels would make for a weird coalition.
And that would be OK. The American, Madisonian political system was designed to bring together groups with disparate backgrounds and ideas. Every majority political coalition has included people who have disagreed on important issues. No political coalition has ever been stranger than Franklin Roosevelt's, but that coalition was able to win elections and reshape the country. Cruz would have to find the common ground between these various and opposed kinds of alienated Republican-leaning voters.
One candidate who did that was Ronald Reagan. Reagan was able to win over small government conservatives, social conservatives, and urban, white working-class Democrats to defeat the Republican establishment of his day. But, of course, Cruz is no Reagan. Reagan spent years trying to understand the worldviews of persuadable working-class voters. If Cruz has any particular skill for appealing to moderates, he hasn't shown it yet.
Cruz's best chance to win over working-class moderates is to offer policies that indicate he understands their struggles. This could mean opposing increasing future low-skill immigration and moving to a Canadian or Australian-style immigration system that favors skills and English language proficiency. The public already favors that immigration policy, but moving to that kind of system also sets up a fight with Republican elites. Cruz could make the argument that lower-skill Americans of all ethnicities have relatively high unemployment rates and low labor force participation rates. This fact might allow Cruz to stand up to the business interests that are terrified that they might have to increase wages if low-skill immigration is not increased.
That probably would not be enough by itself. Cruz would also be well-served to steal ideas from some of his more establishment-minded rivals. He could move to something like Scott Walker's health care plan to assure wage-earners that losing employer-provided coverage would not result in losing health insurance. He could borrow Marco Rubio's child tax credits to assure wage-earners that conservative politics also means making working and raising a family a better deal.
Cruz can plausibly argue that he is a fighter for the values of Tea Partiers who want to repeal Obamacare, and social conservatives who are principled opponents of abortion. Cruz's challenge is to present himself as a fighter for working-class Americans who feel ignored by Washington and despised by conventional politicians. Cruz needs to pick some fights for these voters.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.