The following assertion may not seem immediately intuitive, but I believe it to be true: Ted Cruz is the current front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

First, I would implore all readers to watch a full Ted Cruz speech if he or she has not already. The man is simply a performative marvel. He manages to strike some sort of preternatural balance between fiery Southern Baptist sermon and stand-up comedy routine, invariably bringing crowds to their feet. In the era of the tweet-sized soundbite, Ted Cruz’s mastery of the one-liner and the pun are not trivial; they are integral to his success.

The only other potential candidate who holds a candle to Cruz in this regard is Chris Christie, who I wrote earlier this year still stood a fighting chance to acquire the nomination. I no longer believe this to be the case. Christie established a national profile early in his gubernatorial tenure on the strength of his attractively brash personality, and was well-positioned to marshal that into an extremely credible bid for 2016. Now, however, it appears he may not even end up running. (Though I don’t discount his chances completely.)

For all the partisan brouhaha associated with “Bridge-gate,” it looks increasingly like there was in fact serious malfeasance involved, and that malfeasance may directly implicate Christie. A report in the Bergen Record from September 4 revealed that low-level Port Authority Police officers, incensed the morning of the bridge lane closures about potentially catastrophic security problems, were ordered over police radio frequencies to “shut up” by high-level Police commanders. David Wildstein—Christie’s longtime ally, childhood associate, and formerly anonymous progenitor of the influential PolitickerNJ gossip website—was also observed surveying the scene that morning in a car driven by another childhood friend of both Christie and Wildstein, Police Lt. Thomas “Chip” Michaels. The idea that Christie had no knowledge of the plot now strains credulity such that he is virtually disqualified for the purposes of 2016.

The establishment Republican donor class seems to have acknowledged this. A clear subtext of Byron York’s Washington Examiner article last week on the new flurry of chatter about a potential Mitt Romney 2016 candidacy shows that the establishment has all but abandoned Christie. (York also conducted an informal poll of his Twitter followers about their favored 2016 candidate, and found that zero—literally, zero—had a preference for Christie).

It would not be a total shock if Christie gets indicted in the near future. It also seems highly likely that his close ally Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Democrat of New York, possesses some kind of “smoking gun” evidence implicating Christie in Bridgegate, given their shared jurisdiction over the Port Authority bi-state agency. The Wall Street Journal reported in December 2013 that Christie personally phoned Cuomo for still-undisclosed reasons pertaining to the issue. What was the nature of that phone call? We still don’t know. We do know, however, that at a press conference last week on the alleged terror threat facing the New Jersey-New York region, a reporter asked Christie whether any protocols had been put in place to prevent another dangerous security incident, like what occurred on September 11, 2013 as a result of the bridge lane closures. Comically, Cuomo himself intervened as a salve, rattling off a boilerplate non-answer; the two then walked off without saying anything further. Christie looked like a deer in the headlights.

So by my lights, Christie is basically finished.

Jeb Bush appears somewhat reluctant to run for family-related reasons, although he may well end up doing so, and Romney could feasibly run again if only out of sheer narcissism. In any event, there is currently no clear establishment favorite, and it seems unlikely that one will emerge any time soon.

Which brings us back to Ted Cruz.

In the post-Citizens United landscape, traditional donor class support is becoming less and less important. Multi-billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson was able to bankroll Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential bid as nothing more than a personal vanity project. Gingrich went onto win the South Carolina primary. That unpredictable dynamic will only have been heightened by 2016. Ted Cruz may be disliked by elements of the GOP elite, but he doesn’t have to rely on their support to prevail, as likely would have been the case in years past.

Instead, Cruz can lean on what I’ll term the “para-establishment”—a constellation of advocacy groups, media entities, individual mega-donors, and others who have long ago thrown their lot in with Cruz. The speech I linked to earlier in this piece was actually from the Americans for Prosperity annual conference in Dallas, where Cruz was a featured speaker. The crowd absolutely ate him up. He is admired by salt-of-the-earth Tea Party types, but also by powerful factions of the Republican vanguard.

Cruz’s stunt earlier this month at the gathering of persecuted Middle East Christians doubtless solidified his support among the “pro-Israel” neoconservative cohort orbiting around Bill Kristol. Kristol’s new media outfit, the Washington Free Beacon, gave Cruz a mouthpiece in the form of reporter Alana Goodman. (Cruz met privately with Kristol and other donors in Texas just days before the shameful incident.)

The Americans for Prosperity relationship shows that Cruz has been in the good graces of the Charles and David Koch network for years now. This is almost certainly a more significant courtship than earning support from the Republican National Committee.

Cruz also has a potentially compelling “personal story” which could give his candidacy an air of historical significance. He’d be the first president of Hispanic ancestry, and would absolutely be able to tailor a powerful message to that effect. A Harvard Law graduate whom professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz once described as “off-the-chart brilliant,” Cruz’s intelligence should never be underestimated.

For all his pretensions of down-home, aw-shucks conservatism, Ted Cruz is undeniably a member of the cultural elite. He counts his former Princeton classmate, Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review, as a personal friend. Meanwhile, Cruz is winning straw polls at major Evangelical events like the Values Voter Conference. Also, his wife is a managing director at Goldman Sachs.

The idea that Cruz could seize the nomination might seem far-fetched now, but the conditions of the American political system are changing radically, and it would be foolish to discount the idea. What’s the alternative? Jeb Bush? Really?

Rick Perry (also under felony indictment)?

Scott Walker (facing potential criminal charges of his own, as well as a fiercely-contested re-election this November)?

Lastly, does anyone seriously think that Rand Paul will be any match for Cruz’s guile?

People assumed Barry Goldwater in 1964 was far-fetched, too. And Ted Cruz is a lot smarter than Barry Goldwater.

Michael Tracey is a journalist based in New York City.