Further Thoughts on Ted Cruz’s “Sharp Elbows”

by John Sides on June 2, 2013 · 16 comments

in Campaigns and elections

Jon Bernstein has a reply to my earlier post on Ted Cruz’s tendency to criticize his fellow Republicans.  I suggested that this was, on balance, not helpful for a presidential bid, if he were to run.  Jon is more sanguine:

But feuding with John McCain, and having other Republican senators uncomfortable with his excesses? That’s not going to be what stops him.

I’m sticking to my guns.  Here is the historical pattern that Cruz confronts.  First, in every contested Republican presidential primary since 198o, the party has nominated a relative moderate in the field.  See 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2008, and 2012.  Cruz is not a moderate, relative to the rest of his party.  Second, as Martin Cohen and colleagues show in The Party Decides, the longer a party is out of power, the more likely they are to nominate a moderate.  I wrote about this here.  To be sure, this finding derives from a pretty small sample.  Nevertheless, based on the historical pattern, Cruz starts out as a relative underdog to win the GOP nomination in 2016, even before he’s opened his mouth on the Senate floor.  It seems worth his while to think about that fact if he wants to be president.

If he does want that, then he needs to build his appeal within the party.  Jon doesn’t think that’s too hard:

All of which means that even if those who actually have to work with Ted Cruz may not like him, there are still plenty of party leaders who may interpret his attacks on “party leaders” as those of an ally ready to help them storm the gates, rather than as a threat to their insider status.

But I’d submit that appealing to these people is not what Cruz needs to do to win the nomination.  Jon is essentially describing Cruz’s base.  But any nominee needs broader support in the party—support beyond his natural base.  In fact, Cohen and colleagues show that it is support from party leaders outside a candidate’s base that is truly potent: it appears to drive fundraising, media coverage, and ultimately poll numbers.  Given how Cohen et al. measure the “bases” of various candidates, this would mean that Cruz needs support beyond the Senate—so my argument certainly isn’t that he needs to woo John McCain and Susan Collins in particular.  My point is that the kinds of behavior that would earn him the endorsements from Senators who are not his conservative kindred are likely to earn him the support of other party leaders who aren’t in the Senate and are outside his natural base.  (And, by the way, that’s a base he can’t even count on if Paul runs.)  And the support of these other leaders is what would be most valuable.  That’s why I think Cruz’s M.O. isn’t optimal.  He’s antagonizing some of the same people that would be most useful to have in his corner.

Let’s be clear, there are no iron laws at work here, and I’m not making categorical statements.  My only point is probabilistic: that Cruz’s behavior, if it continues, is doing more to decrease his chance of winning the GOP nomination than to increase it.


Andrew Gelman June 2, 2013 at 9:31 pm


This is not to disagree with a single thing you’re saying, but . . . I just want to emphasize that there’s a lot more to politics than being president. Even if Cruz has the goal of running for president, he’s got to have other goals too, and it wouldn’t make sense for him to ignore those other goals, even if they don’t increase his probability of getting that nomination.

John Sides June 3, 2013 at 9:15 pm

Andy, I don’t disagree at all. I’m proceeding on the premise — correct or not — that Cruz wants to run for president and would give that goal enough weight to make trade-offs.

David A. Hopkins June 3, 2013 at 12:51 am

Interesting. Since Jonathan Bernstein has pulled me into this discussion (my thanks to him), I’ll share a few points that occur to me.

1. I freely admit my own dissent from the emerging poli-sci conventional wisdom regarding the importance of endorsements in nomination politics. But I’ll put that aside for a moment. Assuming for the sake of argument that collecting large numbers of elite endorsements is in fact key to winning party nominations, it seems to me that we need to think about the factors in play when an elite actor weighs whether and whom to endorse. The case against Cruz’s behavior seems to be based on the idea that personal relationships are critical. But I can think of a lot of other considerations that seem just as or more important to me, including but not limited to: (1) ideological compatibility, (2) perceptions of viability in the primaries, (3) perceptions of electability in the general election, (4) shared base of geographic or factional support within the party, (5) calculations of political self-interest, and even perhaps (6) who would make the best president.

For example, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry were not exactly best friends in the Senate–tension and rivalries often arise between senators from the same state and party–but in 2004 TK not only endorsed Kerry but campaigned enthusiastically for him during the primaries. Whereas TK and Chris Dodd were truly personally close, yet TK didn’t endorse Dodd’s candidacy in 2008. Similarly, while John McCain might well finish much closer to the bottom than the top in a confidential popularity contest among Republican senators not named “Lindsey,” he nonetheless won the nomination in 2008 due to his other strengths as a candidate, without anyone in the Senate GOP leading much of an active opposition to his candidacy. Republican elites may think that Cruz is an obnoxious grandstander, but if they agree with him on the issues, or think he’d be a good candidate for the party (and, parenthetically, his ethnicity is not irrelevant to this point), or think the alternatives (whoever they turn out to be) are even worse for whatever reason, or are afraid that if they try to crush him the Tea Party will come after them in their next primary election, I don’t know how energetic their opposition would be. Some might grumble about him in private but endorse him anyway.

2. Since we’re talking about what we can learn from history about nomination politics, it seems relevant to emphasize the somewhat remarkable lack of success that members of Congress, especially long-serving and powerful members of Congress, have historically had in securing presidential nominations (and, in addition, then winning the presidency). Many people emphasize the role of the post-1968 party reforms in favoring “outsider” candidates, but it seems to me that this has been much more true than not going back to the days of Andrew Jackson. If you choose to seek the presidential nomination as a member of Congress, it seems to be a smart political move to cultivate a reformist, anti-Washington persona, as JFK, McGovern, McCain, and Obama all did successfully in various ways. I would guess that this is a historical pattern that potential presidential candidates in Congress are well aware of.

Now Cruz–assuming that he is in fact interested in running for president–may be indeed making a mistake in picking these fights in the Senate, but I don’t see his strategy as self-evidently irrational. In the best case scenario, he gains public visibility, becomes a hero to conservative activists (many of whom don’t have much love for Senate Republicans in the first place), and preserves his “outsider” bona fides despite his Capitol Hill address. In that case, if he runs a competent campaign, he seems like a potentially formidable candidate in the Republican presidential primaries. I completely agree that most of the time, historically speaking, the pragmatists win out over the ideologues in nomination politics. But not always. If Barry Goldwater could be nominated under the old, pre-reform system, I don’t see why Cruz couldn’t make it through the current process. And while parties out of power may tend as a general rule to become more moderate over time, the contemporary Republicans might turn out to be an exception.


andrew long June 3, 2013 at 1:21 pm

I know your Goldwater-Cruz comparison is not a direct one, but I would submit that the more apt parallel to a pre-reform ideologue–in personal bearing and party standing–is to Goldwater’s colleague and friend, the junior Senator for Wisconsin.

Erik M. June 3, 2013 at 3:34 pm

the junior Senator for Wisconsin

Tammy Baldwin is a colleague and friend of Barry Goldwater’s?

andrew long June 3, 2013 at 9:37 pm

No, but nor is she a “pre-reform ideologue.”

John Sides June 3, 2013 at 9:32 pm

Dave, thanks for your comments. I’d suggest that Cruz, by engendering resentment among at least some of his colleagues (and others like them outside of the Senate), may have a harder time convincing enough Republicans of #2, 3, and possibly 6 in your list above. The good will and support of his colleagues and these others would be a useful signal that he was viable, electable, and presidential material. And I think there are plenty of ways of being an “outsider,” if that’s necessary, without being an antagonist (see, e.g., Obama).

Ultimately, I’m perfectly willing to admit exceptions to rules. I guess my thoughts are predicated on the idea that potential candidates should bet on rules rather than exceptions.

JG June 3, 2013 at 9:11 am

Endorsements aside, if Cruz really does have Presidential ambitions he will need to show that he is an effective politician. This means accomplishing things while in the U. S. Senate. Cruz’s current predicament is not so much his appeal…arguably his presidential primary appeal would be fairly high: he is a middle-aged white male who is intolerant of basically everything and everyone to the “left” of the radical right-wing (in this sense he has much in common to the 2012 candidacy of Rick Santorum sans sweater vest).

Nevertheless, if Cruz wants a “promotion” he will need to do something and his actions to date are not only alienating to a broad swath of the American public but to his colleagues in the U.S. Senate as well. As it stands I see it being difficult for Cruz to get any pet project/bill of his passed before the next presidential election.

This begs the question: can a U.S. Senator successfully run for the Presidency without having a “positive” legislative accomplishment attached to his name?
Cruz still has time to repaint his self portrait, but doing so would largely betray his vengeful political base.

Befuddled June 3, 2013 at 12:13 pm

Some of these terms, such as “white male” and “begs the question,” are being used in very creative ways in this comment. Ways with which I am not familiar.

Is there a Style Guide, or some other manual or the like, which would help a poorly educated fellow like myself sort out these new usages?

Sarcastic JG June 4, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Thank you for you very important contribution to this discussion, Befuddled.

Befuddled June 6, 2013 at 3:50 am

Any discussion premised on taking seriously those who refer to Ted Cruz as a “white male”- and pretending such persons have any type of insight into American politics- is not likely to be all that fruitful.

Identifying those who are too ignorant to contribute to a particular discussion can be quite helpful. Unless you happen to be the guy who can’t figure out how to use google.

Pat June 3, 2013 at 10:13 am


Although I am a rabid Obama supporter, I have to point out that I cannot remember our current President’s accomplishments in Congress besides being a founding member of the anti-Iraq War movement. He won a hotly contested presidential primary based on his organizational skills and strength of character. Plus, he’s really articulate.

So I would argue that “positive legislative accomplishments” are not required. In fact, if your base is against compromise, they might even be detrimental.

JG June 3, 2013 at 10:55 am

Obama had a few bills become law and was a cosponsor on a number of others. Obama explicitly campaigned in 2008 on Lugar-Obama and the Iraq-War De-escalation Act.

As we both note, Cruz’s positioning may play well in the primary…but come general election time I seriously doubt having a negative-record will be a campaign asset. The message will be simple: Cruz is neither capable nor willing to govern. The general election message would double down on that line and add that he is so radical that members of his own party reject his ideas. Neither line need be true, but a record with no positive accomplishments reads to me like a messaging consultant’s wet-dream.

Eric June 4, 2013 at 6:13 pm

I’m sure everything you’ve said is correct, but one has to wonder about the counterfactual. If Cruz were not doing all these things to annoy his fellow senators and attract publicity, what chance would he have as a presidential candidate? Have there been viable candidates in the recent past who have not done at least one remarkable thing to raise their public profile?

John Sides June 4, 2013 at 7:05 pm

Eric: It may be that relative newcomers need to do something “remarkable.” But is it possible to do that without antagonizing colleagues? Like, say, Obama at the 2004 Democratic convention?

Eric June 6, 2013 at 2:37 pm

Yes, that is what Obama did that was remarkable. Cruz didn’t do that. There are few other avenues to publicity.

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