Donald Trump will go to the Republican convention in Cleveland with more delegates than anyone else. But it’s still possible he won’t have an outright majority. The mechanics of a contested convention have been covered at length in TAC and elsewhere. But what about the politics—who actually emerges as the Republican nominee?
The simplest answer is Ted Cruz. He’ll have the second largest number of delegates, as well as the symbolically important second largest number of popular votes. Although his Senate colleagues dislike and have been slow to endorse him, he has in fact assembled a broad coalition of support on the right, from former Jeb Bush advisors to the Senate’s most policy-minded conservative, Mike Lee. Cruz is the obvious pole around which to consolidate anti-Trump forces.
A two-man contest between Trump and Cruz is clarifying for movement conservatism. Cruz is what movement conservatism consciously created—somewhat to its own regret. The Texas senator checks every ideological box for the movement, from cutting government to talking tough in foreign policy to opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. Cruz wants to restrict immigration, but he’s more favorable toward free trade than Trump is. That’s roughly where the center of gravity for movement conservatism lies as well. The trouble is that Cruz has used these issues to advance himself in a way that has embarrassed his fellow movement conservatives. Instead of being kept in line by his adherence to movement orthodoxy, he has exploited his mastery of that orthodoxy to make himself a star.
Trump, on the other hand, is what movement conservatism has unconsciously created—a populist, economically nationalist backlash against a movement whose priorities are chiefly those of wealthy and upper-middle-class whites. This is even true where social issues are concerned: the poorest white Americans may not be supporters of same-sex marriage or abortion rights, but when given the choice they prioritize other issues more fundamentally connected to their lives. In this, lower-class whites are similar to black and Hispanic Americans, who remain firmly part of the Democratic coalition—despite much talk from movement conservatives about black and Hispanic qualms over abortion and homosexuality—because economics and group status are the things that matter most.
The practical, short-term question for Republicans choosing between Trump and Cruz is not so much whether either of them can beat Hillary Clinton—that may ultimately depend on her legal troubles—as it is which of them will do the least damage to down-ticket Republicans. U.S. Senators Mark Kirk (Ill.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Pat Toomey (Penn.), and Rob Portman (Ohio) are all vulnerable, as is the Senate seat being vacated in Florida by Marco Rubio. Cruz is less toxic for the party overall—he may be widely disliked by his colleagues, but as controversial as he is, he’s nowhere near as controversial as Trump. Yet one might wonder whether Cruz is really the stronger top of the ticket for struggling Republicans in some of these battleground states, where Trump’s working-class demographic could be critical.
In any event, the long-term, existential question may supersede short-term calculations. This is the question of exactly whose party the GOP is supposed to be and how it can again win elections at every level. The lower-class whites who respond most favorably to Trump have been an indispensable but subordinate element in the Republican coalition for decades. Trump has revealed just how sharply at odds this group’s attitudes are with those of the GOP elite. And looking at the policies that the most elite Republicans support—policies identified with Marco Rubio, for example—it’s obvious that they are intended to build a new base for the party while the white working class is consigned to gradual decline. Trump voters’ jobs are being eliminated by technology and trade deals, while the voters themselves are to be replaced by a larger Republican share of the Hispanic vote.
Ted Cruz, despite his Canadian-Cuban background, hardly seems like the leader to usher the Republican Party toward a multicultural future. But if Cruz is only a halting step forward, in the eyes of the most enlightened Republicans, Trump would be a great leap backward. The Republican elite might have preferred Rubio, or anyone else but Trump, over Cruz. Yet it’s hard to see any other choice emerging at the convention. The notion that Cruz or Trump delegates—who together will make up the overwhelmingly majority—would switch to Kasich seems farfetched. A failed candidate from earlier in the presidential contest, say Scott Walker or Rick Perry, might be more plausible, but not by much. Again, why would Cruz people defect?
Leading Republicans who haven’t been candidates this cycle are no better prospects. Mitt Romney is a two-time loser already, and Paul Ryan, although he has not ruled out standing as a candidate at the convention, is not suicidal: trying to unite the party in July, then beat Hillary Clinton in November, would be quite a trick. Ryan resisted even taking up the House speakership, having seen how the party’s congressional schisms brought down Boehner. Would he take a greater risk with a presidential bid?
Movement conservatives and the Republican establishment are stuck together for now, and they’re stuck with Cruz, who represents the only prospective nominee who can claim legitimacy as the alternative to Trump. And however imperfect he might be, Cruz would do more to advance the elite plan to remake the GOP for the 21st century than Trump would—especially if Cruz loses in November. His defeat could then be pinned on his being too conventionally right-wing, too Trump-like himself, and on Trump voters bolting the party. That would give the establishment all the more reason to call for a return to the policies associated with Rubio and the 2012 Republican “autopsy.” The failure of Cruz’s Reagan-vintage conservatism would clear the way for a new kind of right in 2020.
The white working class isn’t extinct yet, however, and Trump represents a radical alternative for the GOP: a 21st-century Nixon strategy. The racial polarization involved in this has been getting plenty of attention, but the economic dimension should not be overlooked. Trump is not only making promises to American workers that by opposing trade deals he’ll keep good jobs in this country, he’s also bidding for votes by refusing to make cuts to popular government programs. From Social Security to federal funding for Planned Parenthood, voters who want tax dollars to provide services are hearing a pitch from Trump. It’s clear enough where this leads: to a Republican Party that bids with the Democrats to offer voters the most benefits. And if the bidding starts among working-class whites, that doesn’t mean that’s where it will end. If the dream of elite Republicans is to win blacks and Hispanics by appealing to values, the Trump strategy may ultimately be to appeal to their economic interests in much the same way as Democrats have traditionally done.
In simple terms, the elite Republican plan is for the GOP to be a multi-ethnic party whose economics are those of the elite itself; the Trump plan is for the GOP to be a party that politically plays ethnic blocs against one another, then bids to bring them together in a winning coalition by offering economic benefits for each group. Neither of these approaches is guaranteed to succeed, of course: non-white voters who already prefer the Democrats may continue to do so despite a liberalization of the GOP’s immigration policies, while the Nixon-Trump strategy risks being outbid by Democrats—who are historically more accustomed to promising government services—and sacrificing a growing number of non-white voters for a shrinking number of working-class whites.
In a healthy party these factions, Trump and anti-Trump, might learn from one another, the anti-Trump side coming to recognize how it has failed the white working class and the need to provide for it once more; the Trump side acknowledging the demographic realities of the 21st century and the toxicity of strident identity politics. Alas, the GOP has shown no capacity at all for learning from the mistakes of the Bush era—the establishment’s support this cycle for another Bush and for the Bush-like Rubio is proof of that—and the same is likely to be true of learning from the Trump crisis, or of Trump learning from the candidates he has vanquished.
Perhaps Cruz might do what the Republican establishment and Donald Trump cannot, reconciling the demands of the white working class with those of burgeoning cohorts of Hispanic and Asian voters. If he hopes to prevent Trump from assembling a delegate majority ahead of the convention, Cruz will have to broaden his appeal beyond the most religious and ideologically orthodox blocs of the GOP. Those very conservative or devoutly evangelical voters have allowed Cruz to win caucuses and closed primaries in some deep-red states, but they cannot counter the sheer mass of voters that Trump brings out in larger and more politically mixed states. For Cruz, broadening his appeal will be no easy thing, when his entire political profile is based on being the most strictly orthodox movement conservative of all. Orthodox conservatism has served white working-class voters poorly, and now that they’ve been offered an alternative by Trump, they’re taking it.
Cruz’s window of opportunity to halt Trump’s progress toward a delegate majority is closing quickly. The Utah caucuses on March 22 give him a shot at another state-wide win, and the Arizona primary that day will put to the test the question of whether John McCain’s home state prefers an orthodox conservative or the very unorthodox Trump. No polls have been taken since last year, but Trump would seem to be the favorite to win Arizona. And after that, the race heads to turf that’s likely to be exceptionally difficult for Cruz: Wisconsin’s primary on May 5, then New York’s on April 19. Unless Kasich can bleed Trump in Wisconsin, the prospect of blowout victories for Trump loom in April.
Trump has overwhelmed all opposition so far on the strength of earned media. The disparity between Trump and Cruz as a ratings draw for cable television will only continue to favor Trump as the race inches onward. Cruz and Kasich risk losing all their media oxygen in the coming weeks, and without that, building momentum to cut into Trump’s winnings will be excruciatingly difficult. Almost as hard as creating a new order out of the chaos of a contested convention. The irony of Cruz’s position is that the party’s future now hinges on how well he can do with an orthodox conservative message drawn from its past.