The 2016 Republican presidential primary has been – in a word – unpredictable. Ink and airtime have been monopolized by a confounding campaign season. From a field including nine past or present governors and four senators, a businessman with no relevant credentials for the highest office in the land has become the man to beat. Donald Trump, despite the degree to which he has upset the field, has so far failed to graduate from “unpredictable” to “game-changing” as a candidate. In fact, that distinction belongs to Ted Cruz, whose strategy to win the White House is guided by a serious departure from conventional campaign wisdom — the decisive rejection of moderate voters.
What’s so different? For one thing, most candidates fight to win the primaries, then determine strategy for the main campaign if they happen to win the nomination. Not Cruz. His strategy has been to “work backwards from Election Day,” design a winning national strategy, and then fit that conclusion into the existing framework of the primaries. Cruz frames the competition for the republican nomination as a two-lane race: the GOP establishment candidates – Bush, Rubio, Kasich, Christie – and the more conservative fringe candidates – Trump, Fiorina, Carson. Whereas the more moderate candidates emphasize their political centrality and electability to woo the traditional power brokers of the Republican National Committee, the “outsider” track is composed of candidates that galvanize far-right voters. First, you pick and win a track, then you beat the other track’s leader. Ultimately, either the fringe or moderate candidate prevails; regardless, the conventional wisdom is that he or she must move to the center to win independent voters.
Cruz rejects this wisdom, offering instead a “base plus” strategy. He argues that defeating the Democratic nominee is not a matter of moving with his opponent to the center, but instead of generating higher turnout in core republican demographics by staying radically right wing. This strategy is based on a theory of the “missing conservative voter.” Non-Hispanic white voters have lost nearly 10 percent of their share of turnout over the last five elections, something Cruz attributes to their disillusionment. In other words, the would-be Republican voters who refrain from voting are the secret to a Republican presidential victory, if only they could be induced to vote. With overall national turnout usually below 60 percent, the party that manages to get a few core demographics to overperform, to generate 80 percent turnout instead of 60 percent, can effectively ignore that the overall population is against them.
While it’s a clever idea, making it happen is an entirely different business. Cruz thinks the apathy is a symptom of disappointment with the Republican Party. To really get excited about a candidate, and thus vote, he thinks they want to see a bold, no-concessions policymaker who stands firm in his values. He has done an excellent job of building a bold platform, but also complimented policy with one of the most formidable campaigns since Obama’s. In Iowa and elsewhere, Cruz has managed an impressive ground game, with strong local organization and more events than most of the other candidates. More importantly for the long haul, he has made investments in big data to gather information about individuals, profile them, and tailor a message that will make them care. Cruz adds that he is also out for crossover voters, those who might change from blue to red if only they received the right message. But, as he stresses:
“That’s not the same as the swing-vote soccer mom, where the traditional strategy is to blur all the distinctions and don’t draw any significant distinctions. Rather, like Reagan, draw a line in the sand and that causes the Michigan autoworker to cross over and say, ‘Those are my values.'”
This combination of targeted messaging, vigorous campaigning, and calculated policy positions puts him in an excellent place to act on his big picture “base plus” strategy. What is concerning about the Cruz strategy is not its efficacy — it’s far too early to draw conclusions about that — but rather its existence. There is only one reason for a seasoned politician to court on the apathetic instead of convincing the interested independents: the return on investment or how many votes your effort gets you. Cruz’s incentive structure has realigned to match the polarization of the American voter. He’s betting his candidacy on the assumption that his returns on investment will be higher by mobilizing his base than by fighting for swing voters.
What’s especially worrying about the fact that Cruz has made this calculation, and not anyone else, is how masterfully he has managed his campaign so far. Even Donald Trump, for all his disruptive energy and momentum, hasn’t shown nearly as much agility and foresight. Cruz has campaigned energetically in Iowa while cleverly remaining the only candidate to play nice with Trump for months. He has framed Marco Rubio, whose positions are nearly identical to his, as his “moderate” opponent, thereby placing himself in the realm of possibility for establishment support despite his firebrand attitude. Cruz has dominated the primary debates by framing his competition in a beneficial light and energizing his would-be voters with his performances. Again and again, he’s made excellent tactical decisions. “Base plus” has been calculated by a very gifted thinker.
If Cruz is correct and wins, he will inspire politicians, left and right, to copy his model. This will accelerate the demise of the moderate voter as campaigns ignore them and the rift between parties becomes larger and more difficult to bridge. It also sets the party up to milk diminishing returns from old conservative demographics, focusing innovation on methods like Cruz’s instead of on manufacturing a broader appeal. In the short term, then, as incentives for moderation disappear, expect politics to become even more dysfunctional, as the reward structure of public service becomes further dependent on extremism. In the long term, if success obscures the strategic vision of the Republican Party, it might well fail to ensure that the principles it stands for survive beyond the culture it has relied upon. In this case, Cruz will have fundamentally altered the future of conservatism.
If he is wrong and loses, then his strategy will prove not to be catalytic but symptomatic; a reminder that the state of politics today is so heavily skewed towards partisanship that arguably the finest strategist on the field could be misled into thinking victory lay there.
It should be cause for grave concern that it is now seriously viable to abandon moderation in favor of working up fringe voters into frenzy. The death of the swing voter, the polarization of American politics — call it what you will, the facts seem to support Cruz. When the goal is no longer compromise, votes are a voice only insofar as they contribute to the shouting match.