Michael Tomasky imagines how Cruz could become the next Republican presidential nominee:
But if Clinton gets in, unemployment is below 7 percent, and America is scandal-and-calamity free, I bet conservatives will think in the back of their minds, “What the hell, we’re gonna lose anyway, so we might as well choose someone we really like, which we didn’t do last time, and be entertained in the process.”
Once again, Tomasky gets things backwards. If economic conditions are improving, Republicans won’t respond by nominating an ideological candidate on the assumption that they are going to lose anyway. There might be a temptation to do that when economic conditions are poor, but it is exactly what they didn’t do in 1996 and 2000 when unemployment was a lot lower than 7%. Republicans place an even greater emphasis on nominating a “centrist” candidate when the other party has a clear advantage. The longer that the GOP is out of the White House, the less inclined most primary voters and donors will be to take a chance on a very conservative nominee, and they are already not very inclined to take that chance. As we get closer to the end of Obama’s second term, the desire to get a Republican–any Republican–in the White House will intensify so much that it is doubtful that any of the very conservative potential candidates will win the nomination. Besides, the last thing that supporters of an ideological candidate would want is to make him the nominee in a year when his defeat seems assured, since that would harm the candidate’s cause and associate his name with a major election loss. Modern conservatives may remember Goldwater’s landslide defeat as a major milestone in the history of the conservative movement, but no one wants to repeat the experience.
It is possible that the prospect of a Clinton candidacy could discourage many potential candidates from both parties from declaring, and in that case an ideological Republican candidate might sneak through in a smaller or weaker field. Even so, it seems just as likely that a relative moderate could benefit from the same process. If Clinton runs and she is perceived to be the clear favorite in the race, Republicans will probably feel compelled to go with the most “centrist” option available to maximize their chances of winning and to limit the damage in the event of defeat. The GOP certainly doesn’t want to lose a third consecutive presidential election, and it definitely doesn’t want to lose in a landslide, and that suggests that there won’t be enough interest in a Cruz candidacy once it comes time to start voting.