Cruz and Reagan

To those of us who don’t like to see relatively recent history abused, it’s a relief to see Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight slap down efforts to claim Ted Cruz is no more of a “long shot” for the Republican presidential nomination than was Ronald Reagan in 1980.

We’re hearing this chestnut again in the wake of Sen. Ted Cruz’s announcement this week that he’s running for president. Kevin Williamson over at the National Review — while correctly pointing out that you should never say never in politics — argues that the people who say Cruz can’t win should look at the Reagan example before getting too confident in their predictions.

Well, I’m looking, and I’m just not seeing it. Reagan was the favorite heading into the 1980 Republican primary. And no, this isn’t only evident in hindsight, it’s a belief born out of the data that was available in the first half of 1979.

Reagan was cruising in the “endorsement primary.” Endorsements from party bigwigs, as I wrote about Monday, are key in presidential primaries. They act as a seal of approval for voters, and in some cases, endorsers provide the machinery needed to get out the vote. According to data from “The Party Decides,” Reagan had 51 endorsements from party actors through March 1979. This included five senators, 23 House members, two state party chairs and one governor. Weighting for the position of the endorser (i.e., senators count for more than representatives), Reagan had an astounding 90 percent of endorsements by party officials at that point.

Cruz has nowhere near that level of support. He couldn’t even earn the endorsement of his fellow Texas senator, John Cornyn, or fellow tea partyer Sen. Mike Lee. Reagan, who had honed his “common touch” as an actor and TV pitchman, was also a respected two-term governor of California, which at that time was a swing state. He gracefully bowed out of the 1976 Republican convention. In other words, Reagan gave Republican officials a number of reasons to like him. Cruz … hasn’t.

Harry is a young-un, so I’d supplement the data he cites with the personal observation that Reagan’s early stumbles in the 1980 contest–he lost Iowa to George H.W. Bush, the first candidate to deploy the strategy of basically moving to that state for a year or so before the Caucuses, which had also adopted a straightforward beauty-contest “straw poll” for the first time in 1980 that made it easy to deduce a winner–were at the time almost universally attributed to over-confidence. Reagan campaign manager John Sears had chosen to promote his candidate’s “inevitability” and “next in line” status (he had, after all, nearly defeated an incumbent president four years earlier). Most famously, “Hail to the Chief” was played as he appeared at campaign stops.

After Reagan lost Iowa, he did briefly behave like Ted Cruz, running a savage ideological campaign against Bush in New Hampshire in harness with the deranged editor of the Manchester Union-Leader, William Loeb. Among other things the Reagan camp emphasized Poppy’s membership in the Trilateral Commission, the symbol of the evil Elite Establishment in that day among the Tea Party’s ancestors. The day Reagan won New Hampshire, Sears was fired and replaced by William Casey.

After that, though, Reagan was back on the inevitability path, and once he dispatched John Connolly in South Carolina, there was no serious doubt about his nomination. Cruz is a long, long way from that enviable position. And Lord knows he’s not the only 2016 candidate who will try to put on a Reagan mask.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.