The Cruz-Rubio Showdown

Yesterday was my December Power Ranking, which revealed the following hierarchy (previous rankings in parentheses):

Tier 6: The Dropouts
17. Bobby Jindal
16. Rick Perry
15. Scott Walker

Tier 5: Moving on Up! (Thanks to Tier 6)
14. George Pataki (15, 15, 17)
13. James Gilmore (14, 14, 16)

Tier 4: Still Basically No Shot
12. Rick Santorum (11, 11, 13)
11. Mike Huckabee (10, 10, 12) 
10. Rand Paul (12, 12, 5)
9. Lindsey Graham (13, 13, 15)

Tier 3: Long Shots With Awful Trends
8. Carly Fiorina (8, 6, 14)
7. Ben Carson (5, 8, 8)
6. John Kasich (7, 5, 6)

Tier 2: The Contenders
5. Jeb Bush (3, 2, 1) 
4. Chris Christie (4, 4, 4)
3. Donald Trump (6, 7, 11)

And now, the top two.

2. Ted Cruz (2, 3, 7): In addition to identifying him as this campaign’s sleeper candidate a couple months ago, I’ve started to formulate a new hypothesis that further boosts his probability to be in the final two. I see him as a sort of “compromise candidate.” This “compromise,” however, is not between the Trump/Carson supporters and the establishment. Make no mistake, the establishment might hate Cruz more than it does Trump and Carson!

No, instead, the compromise is between two sets of antiestablishmentarians. We cannot deny the popularity of the antiestablishment movement, which continues to look like a majority of Republican voters. As a group, however, it is not monolithic. I think it’s comprised of two general subsets. On one side we have what I call the reactionary antiestablishmentarians. These are mostly Trump and Carson supporters who back these candidates because they’re not elected officials and, as Carson put it, “Noah’s Ark was built by amateurs.” These supporters are so furious with their politicians that they instinctively rush to the other extreme and care more about outsider status than they do picking a strong, informed candidate that can win a general election.

The other group is comprised of what I call the “thinking man’s” antiestablishmentarian. They’re just as upset with the Republican leadership as the first group is, but they can more likely better explain why. For them, it’s not an instinctual reaction, but a logical one. Further, as more thoughtful voters, they also have the ability to better delineate the ramifications of their vote. This perspicacity should lead them to realize that a Trump nomination could be Republican suicide in 2016 and potentially beyond. (In 2016, would they get killed by a mobilized Latino vote on Congressional elections? Beyond that, how long would it take to win back Latinos if Trump were the nominee?) It’s likely that Hillary Clinton — and this is coming from someone who does not support her campaign — would pistol whip Trump or Carson in debates and consequently win over independents. (Breitbart might have a story that she literally pistol whips people, I’m not sure.)  For that reason, this group of Republicans, as much as they’re frustrated with the establishment, is more likely to support Rubio or Christie (I hesitate to say Bush) than Trump or Carson.

But who they’ll really end up on, if they haven’t already, is Ted Cruz. He’s both a proven antiestablishment voice and he has the background of a viable candidate. That is, he’s a Princeton and Harvard Law grad, a lauded debater, a U.S. Senator who understands how government works, and, if foreign policy continues to be on the forefront of Republican voters’ minds, his tenure on the Armed Services Committee legitimizes him as a national security candidate much more than Trump’s barking does.

As I’ve been saying for months, as the primary contests draw nearer, Cruz is counting on Trump and Carson supporters realizing that Cruz can be a more effective voice for them, and he actually has what it takes to beat Clinton. If he can then unite both antiestablishment groups he will make a serious run at the nomination. I expect him to win Iowa and be off to the races and maybe win Super Tuesday, thanks to that day’s southern-dominated primary slate, which includes his huge home state of Texas, and his impressive campaign war chest. He’s not the favorite, but he’s not far behind him either.

Tier 1: Speaking of the Favorite
1. Marco Rubio (1, 1, 3): I’m making an assumption that party leaders are so terrified by a Trump or Cruz nomination that the smoke-filled rooms of yore light up again, so before South Carolina we will see the field mostly cleared and one clear establishment candidate remaining. That still might be Bush or Christie, but it’s more likely to be Rubio.

Friends often ask me, “PPFAmerica [my legal name], just cut to the chase. Tell us what’s going to happen.” As if I know! All I can do is discuss likely scenarios, and what follows, as of December 2, is the most likely.

Cruz will win Iowa. Mr. Establishment, on the backs of the establishment push and moderate independents, will win New Hampshire. South Carolina and Nevada are next. If either candidate sweeps both, they’ll have the momentum heading into Super Tuesday.

Mr. Establishment winning the second contest in New Hampshire gives him the edge in momentum heading into South Carolina and Nevada. Plus, as the massive field drops out and overwhelmingly supports Mr. Establishment, that will boost him even more. If Mr. Establishment wins South Carolina and Nevada, it’s over, whereas a Cruz sweep, though it would set up a lead through Super Tuesday, should only be temporary as the remaining, more moderate Republican states would keep Mr. Establishment in the game. (FiveThirtyEight wrote convincingly about the disproportionate strength of Republicans in blue states.) Cruz will make a great show of it, and this duel could ultimately give us a replay of Obama-Clinton 2008 in its divisiveness, ferocity, and razor thin margins, but the party still decides the nominee.

So that’s why Mr. Establishment will probably defeat Cruz, but what makes Rubio the most likely Mr. Establishment?

There’s the obvious explanation: he’s the strongest establishment candidate in the polls. Here’s a look at the big four establishment candidates and their national, Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina polling:

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Rubio sweeps it, and it’s not even close. In three cases, Rubio at least doubles up his closest establishment competitor. (Of course, it’s that fourth case — the Granite State — that could throw a wrench into this whole thing, as Bush, Christie, and Kasich are hoping.) This clear-cut advantage in polling can become important when party leaders determine who to promote. It would make little sense to pick someone else when Rubio is winning all relevant polls, because it would take that much more for another candidate to outstrip Trump and/or Cruz.

The less tangible argument for Rubio as the likely Mr. Establishment is that he is the best candidate to take on Hillary Clinton in the general. It seems to me that Cruz has not only spent this campaign running against mainstream Republicans, but his entire career doing so. While Cruz did indeed stand up for his fellow candidates in his brilliant third debate tirade against the media, he’s been trying to out-conservative the field for years. In his quest to be the antiestablishment alternative, he’s taken many far right positions in order to become the field’s most conservative candidate.

Conversely, Marco Rubio, while certainly embracing conservatism, has had his sights set on Clinton. (So has the looming Chris Christie, it’s worth noting.) He invokes her in every debate while painting a clear picture of which candidate best matches up against her. He has a point. He’s the most qualified foreign policy candidate of the contenders. His youth and forward-looking rhetoric sharply and favorably contrasts what Hillary Clinton brings to the table. His relative lack of wealth makes it hard to place him in the pocket of the 1 percent, not only in comparison to the party’s 2012 nominee, but to Clinton herself. In essence, he’s in a great position to emulate Barack Obama against John McCain in 2008; he’s a fresh-faced, well-spoken, minority candidate taking on a fossilized also-ran of decades past. Oh, and he’s from Florida; with 29 electoral votes, it’s by far the weightiest swing state. It’s like he was created in a laboratory just for this occasion. In case of emergency, break glass. If there’s one person the GOP hates more than Barack Obama, it’s Hillary Clinton, and it’ll do whatever is necessary to defeat her.

Ultimately, these factors — polling, debate chops, aesthetics, Florida — make him the most likely candidate around which the party will rally.  I still think Christie can shake things up in January, and a stubborn Trump might gift us a brokered convention (which really needs a post of its own soon), but most scenarios have Marco Rubio as the Republican nominee.

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