Why vote to nominate Marco Rubio? My guiding star in choosing candidates is winning: winning elections, winning domestic policy and foreign policy battles, winning victory, peace and prosperity for America, winning advancement for the cause of conservative ideas – not in that order of priority, but in that order of how each kind of winning contributes to the next. In the first installment of this series, I argued that Rubio has important and useful political leadership experience, more than the other remaining major Republican alternatives. But that’s just a foot in the door. Why Rubio specifically? Some would say he’s the “most electable” Republican running – I agree, and I’ll talk more about electability and its discontents in a later installment, but that’s not the only reason why I’m supporting him. Rather, I think Rubio brings to the table a crucial gift that has been in painfully short supply since Ronald Reagan departed the scene: the willingness and ability to sell conservative ideas to the unconverted. And like it or not, 27 years after Reagan left office, Republicans in general and conservatives in particular are in need of a good salesman.
Persuasion and the Rise of Reagan
Like all candidates, Rubio is a mix of strengths and weaknesses. But to understand why Rubio’s strengths as a salesman are so valuable at this moment in history, it is worth reviewing briefly how we got here.
One of the most misleading things that gets said about Ronald Reagan every four years by the supporters of conservative candidates is that Reagan’s landslide successes in 1980 and 1984 prove that conservative ideas, when articulated, will command a majority. Now, I agree that Reagan-style conservatism has three basic advantages: it’s simple to explain, it accords with common human experience, and it works. That’s a powerful combination, with the capacity to command a lot of popular loyalty. But even in Reagan’s day, conservatism wasn’t always an easy sell – Republicans never did capture the House of Representatives (although they had a working bipartisan conservative majority in 1981-82 containing many Southern Democrats) or much in the way of Governorships and state legislatures, they lost the Senate in 1986, and at every level the GOP of that era contained a lot more liberal Republicans than we see today.
More to the point, Reagan did not just show up, announce his philosophy as if it had been handed down on stone tablets from Mount Sinai, and sweep to victory. Barry Goldwater tried something like that in 1964, and lost 44 states and the popular vote by 22 points. Goldwater got 27 million votes, compared to the 34-35 million who voted for Eisenhower and Nixon in 1952, 1956, and 1960, and the GOP got routed disastrously downticket, leaving the Democrats with a 68-32 majority in the Senate and 295-140 in the House, the consequences of which are still with us. (More below on 1964). When LBJ failed, the voters soured on liberals and gave moderate Republicans a try; when Nixon and Ford failed, they gave moderate Democrats a try (Jimmy Carter had campaigned as one); only when Carter failed, out of all other options, did they turn to Reagan. A similar story could be told of the road to the prior two conservative Republican Administrations, McKinley and Harding/Coolidge.
Reagan had spent long years making his case to the public before he got there – making it with humor and charm and savvy as well as with his record as a two-term Governor of California. Even in 1980, he inherited a country ready for the conservative message – not a country already sold on that message. He moved the country and the voters to the right by presenting conservatism in kitchen-table and shared-values terms that every American could understand. But the accomplishments of conservatism at home are no longer so self-evident. The last great domestic policy accomplishments of the conservative wing of the GOP – at least the last ones widely enough known to be seen outside of a particular state – came in the law enforcement revolution of the 1990s, when the nation’s Republican mayors, led by Rudy Giuliani, drastically reduced street crime across the country. And given the Newt-induced centrism of the Clinton years, by 2009, it had been a generation since the country experienced the enervating slow bleed of liberalism ascendant, so young voters never learned the lessons my generation (and Rubio’s, and Cruz’s) learned watching the wreckage of the Carter era.
Sadly, but maybe inevitably, the Republican Party for the past 27 years has mostly coasted on Reagan’s achievements, assuming that an electorate once persuaded will stay that way. George H.W. Bush, a good man but never really a believer in Reagan’s message, got elected in 1988 by essentially promising a third Reagan term, and shattered his coalition by not delivering one. George W. Bush was sometimes ‘misunderestimated’ as a communicator, but while W was very good at communicating what he intended to do, he was deficient at explaining why. W did not teach or even ably defend conservative values, ideas, or policies, did not persuade – he simply appealed to shared values that already existed.
W’s two election wins came when the voters were 12 and 16 years removed from the end of the Reagan years, which meant that every single voter age 30 and up in 2000 was old enough to vote for Bush’s dad in 1988 – the last year when Republicans won a majority of voters age 18-29. The Baby Boomers, young and liberal when they voted in Jimmy Carter in 1976 (the last election until 2012 when the winner of the age 30+ vote lost the election) were between the ages of 36 and 54 in 2000, 40 and 58 in 2004, prime ages for being responsible, working, taxpaying adults and voting Republican. Bush didn’t need to persuade those voters that Reagan was right, only that he would be faithful to Reagan’s principles as his father had not been. Still, it’s worth remembering that Bush’s most popular promise was his across-the-board tax cut on everyone who paid federal income taxes – a tangible, understood-at-the-kitchen-table promise that people could actually measure and see happen for themselves.
Time moved on, and the composition of the electorate changed. By 2012, someone who was 35 was too young to vote when Reagan left office; by 2016, a 40 year old was 4 when the Gipper was elected, 12 when he departed the scene, 18 when Newt Gingrich swept to power behind the Contract with America. A voter who is 25 in 2016 was 10 on 9/11. Too many Republicans over 40, who watched as the world learned the lessons of Reagan’s era, cannot seem to understand that a whole generation has arisen that was never taught those lessons by experience, and needs to learn them anew. Just asserting them was no longer enough. Bush lost voters under 30 by 48-46 in 2000, 54-45 in 2004; McCain lost them by 66-32 in 2008, Romney by 60-37 in 2012. Some of those voters may grow naturally more conservative with time, and many are already disillusioned with Obama and his party (Romney won white voters under 30, even white women under 30, but by modest margins and with low voter turnout in those groups). But a significant chunk of the youngest voters have only ever been exposed to caricatures of conservatism and platitudes mouthed by much older white men – a ‘low-information’ dynamic that only a President or a presidential nominee can penetrate. I’ll dive into more of the polls another day; for the moment, recall that back in December, Rubio was the first GOP candidate to pull tied with Hillary in a national poll with voters under age 35.
In short, in 2016, we do not live a world like 1988, when the public had been sold on conservatism. For voters over 40, we may arguably live in a world like 1980, when the public had been listening to voices selling it and was ready to turn in our direction. But for voters under 40, we live in a world more like 1964, when the project of introducing conservative ideas was still a new and foreign concept. If we meet them with a stern and unbending voice of Goldwater, our efforts will come to similar grief. We need a salesman.
To Whom Are We Selling?
Rubio and Cruz are selling mostly the same product, but in very different ways. More than any other disagreement between the two, the Cruz-Rubio divide in how to approach the voters is about differing conceptions of what is possible with the electorates and Republican coalitions in 2016 and beyond. These differing views of the possible come from differing views of who the persuadable voters may be, and suggest differing models of how a 21st Century Republican campaign should follow the paths of past campaigns. The 2012 election focused our attention as never before on who the voters are, given that Mitt Romney won independent voters by five points (and won them in most competitive states other than Iowa, New Hampshire and Florida) and won most other categories of traditional “swing voters” (e.g., voters over 30, suburban voters, white Catholics) and still lost the election due to Obama maxing out turnout among his most favorable voter segments (non-white women and non-white voters under 30). Recall the broad outlines of the current arguments about the electorate, which I’ve covered at some length before:
1. The Emerging Democratic Majority Theory: Progressives have spent the past 15 years arguing that demographic change – the growth in Hispanic, Asian and South Asian populations, the decline of religiousness especially among white Americans, and the rising levels of voter turnout among African-Americans – means that over time, the electorate will (all by itself) become gradually more favorable to Democrats, nationally and in many key states. A 2015 Pew survey found that Democrats have a 16-point advantage among Millennials (age 18-33). A December 2015 Center for American Progress report by Ruy Teixeira, John Halpin, and Rob Griffin projects an electorate in which the white vote is steadily shrinking:
2. The Static Electorate Fallacy: the idea that the 2016 electorate and results will not stray far from the demographic, geographic and ideological contours of 2012, including who turns out and how they vote. This is a common misconception by adherents of the Emerging Democratic Majority theory who expect demographics alone to resolve the 2016 election – possible, but a position I view with skepticism.
3. The Post-Incumbent Election Theory: 2016 should be a major opportunity for Republicans, despite demographic trends, because in thirteen straight elections since 1816 in which the re-election of an incumbent was followed by an election with no incumbent on the ballot, the popular vote shifted significantly away from the party in power every single time, in all but one case (the unusual election of 1868) by a margin wide enough to hand the GOP the election in 2016. The only real counter-arguments to this theory are that the demographic momentum of the Emerging Democratic Majority will overwhelm the historical trends or that Republicans will make a poor candidate choice that squanders that opportunity.
4. The 4 Million Missing Conservatives Fallacy: I have previously debunked the notion that 3 or 4 or 5 million conservatives who had voted in previous elections stayed home in 2012 and/or 2008, or that tens of millions of Evangelical Christian conservative voters remain at large to be brought into the GOP fold. Nonetheless, close analysis of the voter turnout and election results for the last four elections strongly suggests that the GOP does need a candidate who can grow Republican base turnout beyond what McCain or Romney did, and that this should not be an impossible task given historical trends in post-incumbent elections and the enormous number of eligible voters who have not voted in recent elections.
5. The Missing White Voters Theory: the theory that white-working-class, not-particularly-religious voters east of the Mississippi stayed home disproportionately in 2012, and could be won back by a Buchanan/Perot-style candidate who speaks to the resentments of the “radical middle”. Sean Trende looked at the 2012 results and found that these voters did indeed stay away in droves from Mitt Romney in 2012, albeit many of them in states that are not that competitive. Like the missing conservatives theory, this may well offer a pool of voters that can be tapped, but it is unlikely to provide a magic bullet to eliminate the Democrats’ advantage in four of the past six elections. People who don’t vote tend to continue not voting, and changing that is a process of increments.
The Rubio and Cruz Theories
As you can tell from the above summaries, there are both optimistic and pessimistic scenarios for conservative Republicans. The most optimistic theory is that there remains a potentially potent natural majority if conservative white Christian turnout and Trump-ish “missing white voter” turnout can both be excited by the nominee; the Cruz theory of the electorate was already premised on the former, and especially since the emergence of Trump, it has also encompassed the latter.
The less optimistic theory, which underlies most of the arguments for Rubio, is that Republicans right now are in something like the tight pinch that faced Democrats in 1992: favorable circumstances might release us from a multi-year electoral headlock held by an intellectually exhausted dominant party that had decayed at the sub-Presidential level, but only in the hands of a talented candidate who could blunt the other side’s favorite wedge issues and start winning new voters over to the idea that his party isn’t really so bad after all. This is a view of the electorate that starts with us needing to work hard to change the dynamics, but also recognizes that doing so is still possible.
Thus, the case for Rubio borrows a bit from the Obama 2008 and Kennedy 1960 campaigns (which capitalized on the candidate’s ethnic/religious appeal combined with youth and glamor) and a bit from the Bush 2000 campaign, which sanded down some of the rough rhetorical edges of his own party’s ascendant Congressional wing. But most of all, it’s modeled after the Clinton 1992 campaign, which sold itself as a new, younger generation of the party out of power, prepared to face a shifting issue environment. Ironically, Rubio is also chasing Bill Clinton’s path through the primaries, which involves absorbing a huge pounding in the early going (Clinton won just one of the first ten states, and is the only candidate since 1976 to win either party’s nomination without winning Iowa or New Hampshire) but outlasting all comers.
The Rubio model assumes that the GOP in the short run needs to do a little bit of everything – a little more turnout from Christian conservatives, a little better showing with voters in the center, a little less polarizing rhetorical approach to deprive the other side of the means of driving up turnout among its base groups, and start the process of convincing some of them that the water is fine over on our side.
By contrast, the Cruz theory of the general election campaign and beyond borrows a bit from the Bush 2004 campaign (which used the aid of incumbency and ballot initiatives to drive up conservative Christian turnout to unmatched heights), and a bit from the Reagan 1980 campaign (which won over vast numbers of registered Democrats – many of them blue-collar voters – hopelessly disenchanted with the incumbent president), but is mostly modeled on the Obama 2008 and 2012 efforts in its goal of using data-driven base turnout to render the battle for swing voters in the center of the election mostly academic. The rise of Trump has refocused and re-prioritized Cruz’s strategy away from its almost exclusive dependence on evangelical Christians towards also trying to corral more of the “missing white voters”. But it also begs a critical question: can Cruz imitate an Obama strategy that was premised on demographic and cultural trends in its favor, when neither of those trends favor Cruz?
Naturally, these differing views of the electorate imply differing approaches to persuasion. Rubio throughout his career has preferred a more soft-spoken style of persuasion geared to winning over people who may not start out agreeing with him, beginning by trying to avoid alarming them. Cruz has at all times taken the opposite approach – he prefers to fix the target, personalize it and polarize it, in an effort to rally and energize to action those who share his goals and outlook. Which approach you prefer depends in very large part on which you consider more plausible: persuasion of the undecided or mobilization of a majority that does not include them. Historically, of course, the former approach has almost always been the more effective one.
The case for the advantage of Rubio’s sales approach over Cruz’s – despite Cruz’s undoubted eloquence in stating his case – thus goes well beyond this election. It goes to the questions of what the two parties’ coalitions will look like in the future and how the next GOP presidency will operate. Even if Cruz is able to squeeze past Hillary by tapping into the populist anger of the white working-class Trump voters (i.e., those who were not already GOP voters in 2008 or 2012), he faces two basic challenges.
1. Anger Burns Hot, Then Burns Out
First, a significant chunk of the Trump faction is angry not just at any specific government policy but at economic competition and demographic change in general. These are not things any president can solve, much less a free-marketer like Ted Cruz. Four or eight years from now, the perennially angry and disaffected will still be angry and disaffected, and what would Cruz do then? Blame shadowy conspiracies by his own party in Congress? (Perhaps). Obviously the GOP nominee, whether it’s Rubio or Cruz, needs a plan to bring some of these voters in, but depending on them creates an inherently unstable coalition. As Erick has noted about Trump:
I’m more into candidates who try to lift us to the better angels of ourselves and I do not think his campaign is doing that right now. Before I started writing about politics, I worked in politics. As a rule of thumb, I think anger burns out and it is tough to sustain over time.
More broadly, there’s also the question, inherent in any effort to expand your coalition, of what its new members will want. One of the major objections raised to attempts to broaden the GOP coalition in the direction George W. Bush tried – particularly by appealing more to Hispanic voters – is that they would dilute the party’s conservative, small-government message. That was likewise an objection raised when Bush abandoned conservative principles to bail out General Motors, pass Medicare Part D, or impose steel tariffs. But what we have seen so far about the Trump faction (by which I mean not the GOP base voters who are Trump-leaning, but people outside the Bush/McCain/Romney tent who might be brought in by a more Trumpishly populist turn) is that they present the exact same problem, even moreso because they’re lifelong and mostly older Americans who are settled in their ways and ideas. They want more government involvement in trade, higher taxes, bigger entitlements. Again, these are already uncomfortable fits for a free-market purist, small-government Constitutionalist, and libertarian-friendly Republican like Cruz.
That’s an issue well beyond Election Day 2016. Presidents whose coalitions fracture have problems getting re-elected or passing their agendas, and the midterm elections go much better for the party of popular presidents (see 1998, 2002) than unpopular ones (see 1994, 2006, 2010, 2014).
2. The Shrinking Pool
Second, if (as follows from the distinct views of the electorate) Cruz is focused more heavily than Rubio on courting Trump-ish “missing white voters” of the secular white working class, he is betting more of his potential coalition on a shrinking pool, and making it harder for him – even as the first Hispanic presidential nominee – to grow the GOP coalition with younger and non-white voters.
You don’t have to buy into all the smug assumptions of the Emerging Democratic Majority to recognize the basic math: white voters may be a majority for the foreseeable future, especially with slowing Hispanic birthrates and the potential that more Hispanics will cease to self-identify as such as they assimilate further, but inevitably (regardless of future immigration policy), white voters are a declining market and not historically inclined to vote lockstep for a single party. That does not mean Republicans and conservatives should abandon their core base of older white voters (far from it), but that we should insist on broadening our appeal, both generationally and demographically.
With regard to demographics, the numerically inevitable rapid growth of the Hispanic electorate over the next few decades, the fact that most of these voters are not conservatives today, and the fact that as a group they are disproportionately not politically active, means that we are entering a period in which we will have both a great need and great opportunity to begin persuading these voters before they harden into a monolithic permanent Democratic firewall. That process starts with convincing them that Republicans are not their enemies, and progresses from there to seeking converts.
How rapidly is that group growing? Hispanic voters – we’re talking citizens here, not illegal immigrants, just to head off that discussion – are very disproportionately young voters, as the latest Pew survey makes clear:
Hispanic millennials will account for nearly half (44%) of the record 27.3 million Hispanic eligible voters projected for 2016—a share greater than any other racial or ethnic group of voters…The median age among the nation’s 35 million U.S.-born Latinos is only 19…, and Latino youth will be the main driver of growth among Latino eligible voters over the next two decades. Between 2012 and 2016, about 3.2 million young U.S.-citizen Latinos will have advanced to adulthood and become eligible to vote, according to Pew Research Center projections. Nearly all of them are U.S. born—on an annual basis, some 803,000 U.S.-born Latinos reached adulthood in recent years…In the case of whites, some 9.2 million U.S. citizens will turn 18 between 2012 and 2016. Among blacks, 2.3 million young people will have turned 18.
If you are keeping score at home, that means that newly eligible voters are 62.6% white, 21.8% Hispanic, and 15.6% black. If they vote in those proportions and you get 10% of those black voters and 30% of those Hispanic voters, that means the GOP has 8% of the vote and the Democrats have 29% – and if Republicans get an unprecedented two-thirds of the white vote, we’re still a little short of a majority in that age bracket. As that age cohort moves into maturity, we (as conservatives and Republicans) need a plan to be more competitive with non-white voters, as well as dominant with white Millennials; it will no longer be optional. The trendlines are already visible:
With this rapid growth, the Latino electorate is projected to make up a record 11.9% of all U.S. eligible voters in 2016 and will pull nearly even with blacks, who will make up 12.4%….In 2012, fewer than half (48%) of Hispanic eligible voters cast a ballot…By comparison, 64.1% of whites and 66.6% of blacks voted. (Asians, at 46.9%, had a turnout rate similar to that of Hispanics.) At the same time, due to the group’s fast-growing population, the absolute number of Hispanic voters has reached record highs despite a decline in voter turnout between the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. In 2012, a record 11.2 million Hispanics voted…, up from what was a record 9.7 million in 2008.
For now, these voters are only a major factor in three states that are likely to be contested in 2016 – Rubio’s home state of Florida (18.1%), his youthful home of Nevada (17.2%) and Colorado (14.5%), although they are also between 3.4% and 4.6% – enough to be worth courting – in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina. Republicans don’t need that much in the way of Hispanic voters to win in 2016, but if they turn against us for good, the numbers only get worse from here.
Is winning over converts to conservative Republican principles among Hispanic voters even possible? They are not, perhaps, the “natural conservatives” or “Republicans who just don’t know it yet” that Republican leaders have sometimes claimed in the past. Happy talk alone won’t do it, and neither will pandering on immigration. But the case is not as hopeless as some of the more zealous border hawks would have you think. Sean Trende has done some great work in this area, particularly in his book The Lost Majority, and Trende’s conclusion is that Hispanic voters may be starting at a low ebb in terms of Republican voting, but they have already begun exhibiting the same basic trends as prior immigrant groups like the Irish and particularly Italians (and to a lesser extent early 20th Century white southerners) – as they move up the income and education scales, they’re more likely to vote Republican, if we don’t go out of our way to alienate them: “At the end of the day, Hispanics tend to vote more Democratic than whites because they tend to be poorer than whites. There’s still plenty of room for GOP growth in the short-to-medium term — winning middle-class Hispanics by the same margin that he won middle-class whites would have almost delivered the Hispanic vote to John McCain in 2008 — but ultimately the GOP doesn’t need more Republican Hispanics so much as it needs more middle-class Hispanics.”
In the short run, it’s hard to get hard information about Hispanic voting preferences because of holes in the exit polling – we have no exit polls for Cruz’s 2012 Senate race (in which he ran a bit behind Mitt Romney, but ahead in some of Texas’ more Hispanic counties), no Hispanic exit polls for the 2014 Colorado Senate and Nevada Governor’s races. And the polling we do have outside of exit polls is often unreliable or agenda-driven, hardly the kind of robust polling averages we like.
We do know that Rubio won an outright majority of Florida Hispanics in 2010 – 55%, the same as his share of the white vote; Rick Scott got 50% in the same year. But then, Florida’s Hispanic population has shifted more towards Puerto Ricans rather than Cubans in the past few years as Puerto Rico has undergone a severe fiscal crisis. We know that in 2014, David Perdue got 42% of Hispanics in Georgia, almost double Michelle Nunn’s 23% of white voters; Greg Abbott got 44% in Texas, compared to Wendy Davis’ 25% of white voters; and Sam Brownback won Hispanics 47-46 in Kansas. Based on some of the in-race 2014 polling, it appears that male Hispanic voters may be particularly open to voting Republican when the Democrats are running a white woman. Winning big portions of Hispanic voters in off-year elections is not by itself a winning presidential strategy, since midterm voters in any demographic segment tend to be more politically attuned, but it’s a start.
A December 2015 bipartisan study concluded that the door in 2016 remained open:
[U]p to 63 percent of Hispanics could be persuaded to support a GOP candidate…while roughly a third of the respondents identified as strong Democrats, just 8 percent said they were strong Republicans…But 55 percent fell somewhere in the middle, and more than six in 10 of that group’s Republican-leaners said they had previously voted for a Democrat for the House or a higher office. Meanwhile 41 percent of the persuadable Democrat-leaners said they had voted for a Republican, indicating a willingness to break from party lines.
These voters had and have deeply unfavorable views of Donald Trump, but Trump isn’t likely to be the Republican nominee anyway, and if he was, there would be no point analyzing the general election or the future of the party. Let’s ask what that means for a choice between Rubio and Cruz, given the nature of these two candidates.
Who is likely to be the best Republican messenger to young voters in general, and Hispanic voters in particular? In theory, identity politics should not matter. In reality, it always has and maybe always will. Obviously both Rubio and Cruz have an advantage over the rest of the field in this regard, each being the sons of Cuban immigrants and potentially the first Hispanic President, and both being – at age 45 – much younger than recent GOP presidential nominees or the geriatric Democratic contenders. But even aside from his more youthful appearance and upbeat demeanor, on multiple levels, Rubio is more naturally in tune with the experience of young Hispanic voters in particular. Consider a few differences between Rubio and Cruz:
-Rubio speaks fluent enough Spanish to do TV interviews on Spanish-language networks, and bears a slight but noticeable accent when speaking English. Cruz apparently speaks a little Spanish, but not comfortably enough to speak it in public.
-Rubio’s parents were both Cuban; Cruz’s mother was of Irish and Italian descent and born in Delaware. Rubio is visibly darker-skinned than Cruz.
-Rubio’s wife is the daughter of Colombian immigrants, spent a season as a Miami Dolphins cheerleader, and has spent years at home with their four children; Cruz’s wife is white, from California, and is an investment manager at Goldman Sachs (they have two children).
-Rubio is Catholic (although his wife is Baptist and they sometimes attend her church back home); Cruz and his wife are Southern Baptists.
-Rubio goes by his given name; Cruz went by “Felito” in his youth but dropped it as a teen in Texas in favor of “Ted”:
“The problem with that name was that it seemed to rhyme with every major corn chip on the market,” Mr. Cruz wrote. “Fritos, Cheetos, Doritos and Tostitos — a fact that other young children were quite happy to point out.”
-Rubio listens to rap music. Cruz listens to country music.
-Rubio has, from his time as a West Miami City Commissioner, represented majority-Hispanic constituencies at the ground level, and grew up in majority-Hispanic areas of Miami and racially diverse areas of Nevada. Cruz has no similar experience of immersion in the non-white world (although his best friend is Jamaican) and has never represented anything smaller than the State of Texas.
-Rubio had a much more checkered climb up the ladder than Cruz. He attended college on a football scholarship, had to go to community college because his first college went broke and scrapped its football program, ended up borrowing a bunch of money to go to law school that it took him years to pay back, went into politics at the local level. Cruz, of course, was national debate champion at Princeton, on the Harvard Law Review, clerked for the Chief Justice and went into politics at such a high national level that at age 29 he turned down a White House job because he was holding out for an even bigger White House job reporting directly to the White House counsel.
Now, there is nothing wrong with any of these things; Cruz’s personal and family experience is part of the natural assimilation and intermarriage that has long been a part of the American immigrant experience and is especially common among Hispanics in Texas (there’s a whole side debate in the demographic sphere about how you even define “Hispanic” and what percentage of people fitting the definition reject it as a self-description over time, even leaving aside the number of Hispanics who instead identify as Mexican-, Cuban-, Puerto Rican-American, etc.). You can’t rationally hold Cruz’s stellar ascent up the academic and political ladder against him.
But if the 2008 and 2012 elections taught us anything, it’s that the superficial things matter a whole lot in elections. Nobody who has ever been involved in an election will tell you that politics is not a popularity contest (the Trump phenomenon is nothing if not about superficial impressions). Taken in combination, these various distinctions add up to a feel that Rubio has more in common with young first-, second- and third-generation Hispanics than Cruz does – just as many of the same factors contribute to why Cruz has connected more with Iowa evangelicals. And Rubio’s ability to communicate in Spanish is not just a feel, but a tangible asset that only the moribund Jeb Bush shares in this race.
Moreover, without rehashing the whole immigration imbroglio at length, Cruz has used immigration as an offensive weapon against Rubio (arguing that Cruz has taken a harder line against “amnesty” in opposition to Rubio’s position on the “Gang of Eight” bill), while Rubio has mostly been playing defense and trying to convince skeptical conservatives that he would not go soft on the issue. While the optics and perceptions of that battle have worked in Cruz’s favor in the early primary season, the opposite will be true once we get to the general election, as Mitt Romney could testify.
Once we get past the primaries, the reality is that the Democrats have staked out a far-left position on immigration that leaves a lot of open space in the middle – but in a general election with no other choices on offer, the Democratic far-left position is more popular than the hardest-line border-hawk position. Most Hispanic voters are less obsessed with immigration than the media would have you think, but many are sensitive to any perception of hostility to the presence of them and their families in these United States. The perception that Rubio has taken flak for resisting such hostility, while Cruz was calling Donald Trump “terrific,” may well help Rubio open minds that are closed to Trump and might even be closed to Cruz.
How Rubio Sells
Thus far, I’ve discussed why we need a good salesman and why Rubio has the profile of one. But let’s also take a look at how he sells.
Let’s start with a recent video that went viral of Rubio being confronted by an atheist obviously perturbed by Rubio’s public professions of faith. Watch how Rubio manages to walk the line of treating this guy and his concerns with respect, while standing without apology for his own faith and that of many of his supporters:
Next we have Rubio responding to questions about his position on abortion, which were intended to portray him as an extremist on the issue. Watch how deftly he turns this back on Hillary Clinton, pointing out ways in which she is the one outside the mainstream on abortion:
Then there’s Rubio responding to questions about the “Black Lives Matter” movement. There were cheap and easy political points to be scored here, since most conservatives are justifiably suspicious of the people running the movement and the tactics they employ. But Rubio chose to emphasize his empathy with the underlying and pervasive concerns that created the political opening for the movement in the first place:
For a harder edge, here’s Rubio bearing down on Charlie Rose about Hillary Clinton’s lies about Benghazi, and not giving an inch:
Here’s Rubio mixing faith and empathy talking about Millennials in light of the death of a Ben Carson campaign volunteer last week:
Here, halfway through this clip, is Rubio carving up Bernie Sanders in a debate on the Senate floor about proposals to increase accountability at the VA:
You can see a variety of approaches at work here, but notice the common threads – he doesn’t back down or give policy ground to his interlocutors, but he works to disarm them with empathy and common ground while explaining why he stands where he does – not just in terms of abstract principle but in more practical terms. This is how you approach people who don’t necessarily buy into your own ideological premises, but are not necessarily hardened into their own, either. It’s gradual work, and it takes time, but just as Bill Clinton was able to gradually revive the reputation of liberalism in the 1990s for a new generation, Rubio has the skill to do the same thing for our side.
Ted Cruz’s style could hardly be more different from Rubio’s. The idea of bringing your audience along gradually is completely inconsistent with how Ted Cruz operates and has always operated. Even his fans must recognize that Cruz’s default setting is a Manichean struggle between himself and those who stand arrayed against him, with little room for gray in between. That comes through not only in his rhetoric but in his negotiating tactics. As I discussed in the first installment of this series, Rubio’s preferred approach to negotiation is similar to the Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton approach: maneuver himself in public as the more reasonable party, get the voters on his side or at least neutralized, and get the other side to sign something that may save face but is worse for them than it looks. That approach doesn’t always succeed, but it has a pretty good track record and a relatively low downside in terms of public disapproval even when it doesn’t.
Cruz’s signature approach is more like Nixon’s “madman” theory – be the most stubborn and unreasonable person in the room and demand that people bend to you. In closed-door negotiations, when you are sure you won’t face defections, this can be an incredibly powerful method of negotiation. But a great deal of political negotiation doesn’t work that way at all. Public persuasion and posturing have a huge effect on a politician’s ability to keep his own side in line, much less convince the adversary that he has a downside for holding out. Thus far in his Washington career, Cruz’s negotiating strategy has failed to deliver results just about every time he has deployed it. It would doubtless fare somewhat better with the power of the White House at his disposal, but the nature of politics will always make it a high-risk technique with lots of large, costly failures.
Cruz could suffer, in office, from the fact that he’s almost uniformly hated on Capitol Hill, but then again he’s earned most of that hate honestly, much of it from people whose hatred is a badge of honor. My concern is not his unpopularity with elected officials and campaign consultants, but how he will play with voters over extended public exposure.
Cruz has sometimes been compared to Barry Goldwater or Richard Nixon, and while the comparisons are not completely apt, they do tell us something significant. Even if Cruz loses in November 2016, he is not likely to absorb a Goldwater-sized defeat: conservatism is not as strange or foreign to older voters as it was in 1964; Cruz (unlike Goldwater) is not likely to convince voters that he is apt to start a nuclear war; and the Democrats today are not running an incumbent successor to a martyred president in a time of relative peace and booming prosperity. To the extent Cruz is like Nixon, he has more in common with the polarizing young anti-Communist Nixon of 1952 – full of energy and bristling at a Washington society that despised him – than the Nixon of 1972, who abandoned the last of his ideological convictions while in the grip of the demons and resentments that would destroy him. Then again, that later, corrupted Nixon won 49 states; indeed, Nixon was on two winning national tickets as a vice presidential nominee, two winning tickets as a presidential nominee, and his worst loss as a presidential candidate was by less than the margin of fraud in 1960.
But the challenge for Cruz is that both his public personality and his habitual approach to political debate put him in the Goldwater/Nixon category of scowling, confrontational figures rather than happy warriors, and that he embraces rather than resists the caricature of an inflexible ideological purist (Barack Obama, the most ideological progressive in the history of presidential candidates, went to great lengths to avoid this perception). That’s a great brand for selling yourself to primary voters, but it’s historically a dead end in a general election, where the ability to sound reasonable (even for a highly principled political figure) is a crucial asset. For the past 40 years, our politics at a national level have rewarded happy warriors, people you wanted to have a beer with, not people who spat fire and brimstone. Maybe this is the year that changes – but even if it does, how long will that mood last?
I love what Ted Cruz is selling. I’m just not sure he can sell it to anyone who wasn’t already buying.
Does conservatism even need selling, or is it a product for which there is widespread pent-up demand? Do Republicans need to expand their audience to younger voters and Hispanic voters, or are we better off trying to capture the populist anger of the disaffected middle-aged white working class? We can’t know the answers for certain, but if history and experience are any guide at all, the conservative movement and the Republican Party have much better odds of selling ourselves to the next generation of voters with Marco Rubio at the helm.