What Could Ted Cruz Win?

People may be tiring of analyzing Ted Cruz’s presidential prospects by now. (Hell, I’m tired of it, and I’m actually writing a post on it right now. I’m actually tired of this post already.) But there’s a bit of conflation in some of these stories that I wanted to chime in on.

A lot of people are talking about whether Cruz could win or not, and that’s where the comparisons to Ronald Reagan come in (e.g.: here and here). But we should be more explicit about just what we think Cruz could win, the nomination or the general election. Those are very, very different contests.

Cruz is greatly disadvantaged in his quest for the Republican nomination, for the reasons that Harry Enten and others note. The things that candidates need to win a major party nomination — endorsements by major party insiders, broad acceptance or at least toleration by various factions within the party, etc. — are things that Cruz just doesn’t have. His political career thus far has been defined by pissing off important people within his party. No one’s been nominated for president pursuing that strategy in four decades, and more than a few have tried. Besides, there are plenty of solid candidates running this cycle whom party insiders actually like.

But let’s say he somehow overcomes that and gets the nomination. Could he win a general election against Hillary Clinton, or any other mainstream Democratic nominee? Of course he could. His ideologically extreme stances would certainly hurt him, but not fatally. Candidates’ ideological positions do matter, but they can be outweighed by things like a collapsing economy or an unpopular war. Ronald Reagan is proof of this. He remains one of the most ideologically extreme major party nominees (for his time) since World War II, but the economy and foreign policy under Jimmy Carter were bad enough in 1980 that Reagan’s stances didn’t prevent his election. Similarly, if the economy tanks in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s in trouble and could easily lose to Ted Cruz. She’ll already face a bit of a headwind just by representing a party that’s held the White House for two terms.

So to sum up: Cruz’s chance of getting the Republican nomination are extremely slim. His chances of winning the presidency should he somehow get the nomination? Not bad. Not bad at all.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.