Cruz’s Rickety Electability Argument

One of the early presidential cycle themes here at PA has been to look a little more closely at the various GOP candidates’ electability arguments. There’s a bad habit among political analysts to think of ideology and electability as mutually exclusive choices, as voters decide to go with their heads or their hearts. But not even the most obsessive ideologue runs for president conceding electability to their intra-party opponents. And that’s especially true among Republican hard-core conservatives, who have a tradition dating all the way back to the 1940s of arguing that moderate presidential nominees are stone losers.

And that’s even more especially true for 2016, a year conservatives are anticipating as their own version of 1932, 1964 or 2008: an election that could give them enough partisan control of the federal government to instantly roll back the clock at least to 2004, and perhaps to 1980 or even further. Hell, control of the Supreme Court alone is enough to make ’16 a huge election for the GOP. So all God’s children have got an electability argument.

As noted here before, the least credible from a traditional poli sci POV–but also one with enormous precident in conservative circles–is Ted Cruz’s. So it was interesting to watch WaPo’s Philip Bump try to tear it apart today.

Cruz’s argument has two prongs: first, conservative voters have refused to go to the polls in the requisite numbers as the GOP has nominated “moderates” in 2008 and 2012. And second, conservative candidates are more attractive to swing voters than moderates because they offer what Phyllis Schlafly back in 1964 called “a voice not an echo.” The proof of that one is supposedly, of course, Ronald Reagan in 1980s, who was so successful pulling voters across the line that they named a whole demographic–Reagan Democrats–after him.

Bump suggests the math behind the first argument is simply faulty; more conservatives voted Democratic in 2008 than in 2004 or 2012, but there’s no evidence of any big falloff, so the “hidden majority” claim is based on the dubious idea of people who haven’t voted in years. As for the second argument, it’s based on the partisan and ideological dynamics of 1980, when there were still a lot of conservative Democrats left to be “realigned,” and Reagan was running against an incredibly unpopular incumbent in a bad economy.

The trouble with Bump’s refutation is that it’s not over-powering enough to convince people who really, really want to believe Cruz is right. He in turn is right that Cruz is not according to the polls the favorite of conservatives to begin with. But Scott Walker’s electability argument is basically the same as Cruz’s, except that it’s reinforced by his own three victories in Wisconsin. And it’s likely about the same we’ll hear from Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal if any of them start doing well enough that anybody’s really interested in their marketability as a nominee.

You can make a pretty good case that Republicans this year are buying the electability argument of the candidate they prefer anyway. I’d say that’s particularly true of Rand Paul supporters, who by and large are not the electability-obsessed “Establishment” types but instead libertarians who have long believed there is a hidden, bipartisan majority for their views. As I said this morning, the polls will at some point create some real problems for this or that candidate’s credibility as electable. Until then, it’s just a matter of sounding like a winner.

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.