What is Donald Trump for? What is Ted Cruz for? The answer depends on who you are. For a person who pays close attention to politics, Trump’s positions can look like a tangle of contradictions, bluffs, and outright nonsense, while it is easy to check off Cruz's positions on abortion, gay marriage, taxes, and almost anything else. But for a person who doesn't pay much attention to politics, something closer to the reverse is true. For these people, Trump is the candidate of clear positions and Cruz is a candidate more easily identified with his personality (not necessarily a strength) than his principles. How is this possible?
For a regular person, Trump isn't defined by his flip-flops on abortion, single-payer health care, or guest worker programs. Love him or hate him, Trump is defined by a set of clear positions. He is for a border wall, restricting Muslim immigration, and renegotiating trade deals.
That doesn't make Trump any kind of conviction politician. Trump's style is to throw a bunch of (sometimes contradictory) positions out there and see how people respond. Within the same interview—within the same paragraph—Trump asserted that nuclear proliferation was the biggest problem in the world and implied that he would be fine with Japan and South Korea getting nuclear arsenals because America could no longer afford to defend them.
It turned out that nuclear proliferation indifference got bigger cheers than nuclear proliferation alarmism, and, within a few days, Trump was speculating about the possibility of an East Asian (nuclear) war being somebody else's problem.
The point isn't that Trump was right or wrong (encouraging Japan and South Korea to get their own nuclear deterrents might be a good idea for all I know). There is no reason to think that Trump cares whether he is right or wrong. The point is that Trump, a complete opportunist, was able to craft and communicate a position that was easily understandable by a layman.
What does that layman understand about Cruz? Martin Gurri wrote that, compared to Trump, Cruz and the other Republican contenders had gotten so little attention that “They and their messages were largely nonexistent to the public.”
That doesn't tell the whole story. According to Gurri's own chart, Cruz got about as much network news coverage as Bernie Sanders. The daffy, elderly, Vermont socialist indubitably exists to the public. And yet, Gurri is also right that Cruz's message is unclear to the average nonpolitical American.
To see why, we should look at Cruz in his greatest moments of triumph. On the night of the Iowa Caucuses, Cruz gave an interminable speech which might have been redeemed if it had had just one memorable and (for its viewers) relevant moment at the beginning. Instead, Cruz opened his speech with talk about the “grassroots” and “courageous conservatives.” Cruz threw in some generalities about the “free market principles, constitutional liberties, and the Judeo-Christian values that built this great nation,” and then went on to brag about his donors and his volunteers and much else. He eventually got around to policy, but any normal person would have tuned out by then. A nonpolitical person listening to that speech heard nonsense.
After his Wisconsin victory, Cruz opened his speech with a mind-numbing discussion of delegate math, and then it was back to bragging about his donors and endorsers. The sheer irrelevance to anyone who isn't a political junkie is extraordinary; the first seven minutes of Cruz's speech has to be seen and heard to be believed. Cruz started talking about policy issues just in time for Fox News to cut away.
Fox News does have its Trump toadies, but the Fox News primary night team that includes Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly, and Brit Hume runs the gamut from studiously neutral to openly contemptuous of Trump. They didn't cut away from Cruz because they want him to lose. They cut away because they recognized that Cruz's remarks were poison for casual viewers and that almost anything would be better television.
Everyone knows (or thinks he knows) what Trump wants. Normal, nonpolitical people know that Bernie Sanders wants universal government health care and free college. Even with Clinton, they know they are voting for a continuation of Obama's policies. It is more complicated than all of that, but those generalizations allow normal people to measure what politicians promise against their own interests and values.
That is where Cruz and the other conventional GOP politicians before him have failed. They have white papers, but they have no message that reaches the average news consumer. As Gurri might say, their policy connection to the average American is nonexistent—even less than that of the ridiculous Trump. Trump has his wall. What does Cruz have? What do any of them have?
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.