LA PORTE, Ind. – From South Bend to Bloomington Monday, it will be hard for Indiana Republicans to miss Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. The insurgent candidate and his surrogates are making 10 campaign stops, three of them with Gov. Mike Pence, R, who is still atoning for last week’s mealy-mouthed endorsement.
Yet Cruz enters Tuesday’s Indiana primary as an underdog, despite a series of headline-grabbing trick plays. First he latched onto Donald Trump’s disinterest in barring transgender women from ladies’ bathrooms, an issue he brings up in every speech and two closing TV ads. Then came the bargain with Ohio Gov. John Kasich, getting him out of the state; then came the ticket with Carly Fiorina.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday shows Cruz on the precipice of falling badly — Trump led by 15 points, 49 to Cruz’s 34 percent, with Kasich netting 13 percent.
Our colleague Sean Sullivan explains the stakes in Indiana for Cruz: “Cruz came to Indiana to try to resuscitate his flagging campaign at a pivotal moment in the Republican presidential race. But with just one day of campaigning left until Tuesday’s vote – and after a series of desperation measures – the freshman senator from Texas is on the verge of a defeat that would ravage his campaign and raise new questions about whether his mission to stop [Trump] has become futile.”
If Cruz falls short in Indiana, look again at what the three “game-changers” had in common. All were base plays. All assumed that every vote not being cast for Trump should be cast for Cruz.
It was always a risky bet, and as the primary’s dragged on, Cruz has piled on chips and tacked further to the right. (See his moves against the Trans Pacific Partnership and a compromise criminal justice reform bill.) The guiding insight of Cruz’s career has been that even Republican voters are angry at Republican leadership, but as Trump has split – or conquered – that vote, Cruz has tried with increasing difficulty to find a litmus test that Trump will fail.
The limits of that strategy were actually visible in Wisconsin, which – if Cruz loses Indiana – will stand as the apogee of his campaign. In 2012, Mitt Romney effectively ended Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign with a seven-point victory in Wisconsin. Just 44 percent of Wisconsin Republican voters picked him, yet in exit polls, 67 percent of them said they’d be “satisfied” if he won the nomination.
Cruz’s Wisconsin victory was nearly twice as large as Romney’s, with a 13-point margin, and a near-majority of 48.2 percent support. Yet in exit polls, asked how they’d feel if Cruz won the presidency, just 60 percent were optimistic. Put another way, for every two votes Romney got, another voter was open to backing him. For Cruz, the ratio was four-to-one.
Romney was famously unloved for a Republican nominee. But according to Gallup’s tracking of the candidates, Cruz may be in worse shape. Its latest edition of a national tracking poll found Cruz to be the least popular of the three remaining nominees, among Republicans.
The “deal” with Kasich – though neither man wants to call it that – might have done damage. But Cruz seems to be absorbing more of the anger, and Trump’s relentless use of a wacky sobriquet, “Lyin’ Ted,” might explain why. One reason for the insult’s power is that both Cruz and Trump praised each other until they became direct competitors in Iowa. Cruz, who once chided the media for asking him to criticize Trump, now blames the media (see his Sunday interview on Meet the Press) for covering Trump so much.
Why does that sort of muck stick to Cruz, and not Trump? Again, look at the base politics. In exit polls, the Republican electorates that have recently supported Trump have also favored some kind of legal status for illegal immigrants. Cruz, in trying to outflank Trump, has attacked him for favoring a sort of touchback provision for law-abiding immigrants. But wade into a Trump rally and it’s easy to find voters who trust Trump to secure the border to stop criminals from entering but don’t worry about other immigrants.
Watching Cruz on the stump, it’s easy to see his disbelief that the strategy is not working. He’s rolled attacks on “the New York media” into his list of threats; Glenn Beck, his most compelling surrogate, chides the Republican Party for indulging Trump’s instincts. Yet on the eve of a primary he keeps calling pivotal, Cruz is still counting on a base that might only be big enough for second place.