An Autopsy of a Movement

By Dr. Caleb Verbois, The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College (Grove City, PA). Used by permission.

With Ted Cruz having dropped out of the 2016 presidential race, there will be a string of eulogies seeking to autopsy his campaign. At least some of those critiques may hit the mark. In particular, Cruz’s campaign strategy went awry in three ways.

First, Cruz consciously copied Obama’s micro-targeted campaign of voters. He has been repeatedly praised for a campaign that focused on tiny groups of voters in states like Iowa to learn exactly how to win their vote. But while that works in Iowa where there is time to prepare, it does not work once the primary calendar heats up. This focus on targeting winnable voters also led Cruz to worry too much about focusing on states he thought he could win. He had success, in the sense that he won most of the states he heavily focused on, but by “giving up” in other states he let Trump get too far ahead. The most recent example—giving up on the northeast state primaries to focus on Indiana probably doomed his campaign. Cruz was ahead in Indiana but after Trump’s victories in the northeast the polls in Indiana changed drastically.

Second, Cruz copied the strategy of every other political candidate in history but Trump: give a speech in front of microphones, leave before taking questions, and avoid gaffes. Partly as a result, the media didn’t heavily cover most of his events, and rarely showed his speeches live, in stark contrast to the coverage Trump garnered.

Third, Cruz focused too much on winning the most conservative voter. It is not a terrible idea to start there, especially in a crowded primary. But Cruz campaigned as though being the most conservative candidate was a virtue, rather than campaigning on ideas that matter and arguing why his conservative solutions are the best answers.

These are three legitimate complaints about Cruz’s campaign. But the bigger story is that Trump is basically a black swan, an unforeseeable event with extreme consequences, like the Arab Spring, or Leicester winning the English Premier League this year. Even still, without a public immensely dissatisfied with its elected leadership, a post-Constitutional President Obama that has made some Republicans want their own version, and a lapdog media focus, Trump would never have succeeded as he has.

That at least is the version of Trump’s success that is most friendly to the conservative movement. In other words, Trump’s success is not the fault of the conservative movement, but an isolated issue related to Trump’s particular candidacy.

There’s another story, however. Lost in the string of Cruz eulogies sure to come is the bigger point—that every critique of Cruz’s campaign will apply as much or more to the rest of the Republican field. Remember, a year ago Republican operators were bragging about the deepest field of candidates in history, including as many as 17 candidates. More importantly for the conservative movement, many of them were serious political conservatives that had been successful governors, senators, and business leaders.

But that deep field turned out to be fool’s gold. Governors who spent a combined $260 million campaigning for a tiny number of votes. Senators who fantasized about someone killing Cruz on the Senate floor.

The pressing question is why? Why have 40 percent of theoretically conservative Republican primary voters rejected these candidates in favor of a charlatan, con-man, and liar who spends much of his campaign peddling conspiracy theories from the National Enquirer?

The unavoidable conclusion is that they are simply not buying what Republicans are selling.

And this is not really that surprising. Conservatives have been selling essentially the same policy promises since Reagan, even though economic and political conditions in America have drastically changed in the last 30 years. And the Republican leadership, while not particularly conservative, has happily taken the votes of conservatives and promised to act on X, Y, and Z, with precious little intention, or evidence, of actually following up.

So in response, their voters have turned to a candidate with no center, who blows wherever the wind goes, but promises to do so with conviction. Failing to find conviction in Republican leaders, Republican voters have fallen for Trump’s false promises.

The long term problem for conservatives, who are, after all, distinct from the Republican Party, is that regardless of the outcome of the 2016 election, regardless even of the continued existence of the Republican Party, they do not know how to convince voters of their ideas—or even what ideas are most important. Until they fix that, no candidate or campaign magic can fix their problems. Which is to say, Trump is not the problem. His successful candidacy is the evidence of a much deeper problem in the American Republic.


Dr. Caleb Verbois is an assistant professor of political science at Grove City College and an affiliated scholar at the John Jay Institute. He teaches American Politics and Political Theory and specializes in American constitutional thought.

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There are 12 Comments

Greg Long's picture

To me the biggest problem was Cruz just not being likeable.

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Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Greg Long's picture

EXACTLY Barry. If presidential elections were based on substance and reasoned arguments, he would win, but as that interaction shows, when it's based on slogans, shouting, sound-bites, and insults, he's going to lose, as he lost this interaction. But even putting those things aside, again he just comes across as robotic, practiced, and stiff--not a real person.

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Bert Perry's picture

One thing that strikes me is that Cruz and others really didn't make a passionate case that would address the hearts of people.  A lot of it was rehashed "I'm Reagan" "NO, I'm Reagan"....and all that.    While I believe the Democrats are horrible morally speaking, they do know how to make a moral sounding argument, and the Combover figured that out too.

So I don't think this is an autopsy for a movement, but rather a gut check.  Do we know how to make a moral argument that will start to persuade those on the other side.  For example, regarding Planned Parenthood, we know pro choice people don't admit their unease with abortion, but we can ask "By what moral logic do you ask pro-life voters to help fund Planned Parenthood when the poor can go to real medical clinics which do not perform abortions instead?"  

Along the same lines, while environmentalists won't admit unease with funding hybrids and electrics per se, they might be taken aback if we asked "how can it be right for us to tax the burger flipper or janitor to fund a Prius or Tesla for his boss?"

We've got to remember that people are at the heart of politics, and asking some of these questions just might achieve something by persuading our opponents that we've got a decent point.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Joeb's picture

Trump is still a Bozo.  I was all in with Cruz but he greatly disappointed me.  I don't think he tried that hard in SC or Northeast Sates like Pa and NY. Especially PA which has the largest rural population in the US.  Even Obama said between Phlia and Pittsburgh it was like Arkansas being that there is a whole lot of people with bibles and guns.   I heard Cruz went to Scranton but not to much where else he went. The Bible Belt of Pa is in the Southern and North Central Tier and in Northwest Pa Pretty much the same for NY.  These are areas he could do well in and he did not try.  60 percent of the white evangelicals voted for Trump in Pa and Only 30 % voted for Cruz.  He wrote these people off.  Going to Scranton was a dumb move. Scranton is mostly democrat and Catholic. So it's Bozo or Hillary.  What a choice.  Hillary is to much of a war hawk for me and Bozo is oh well Bozo.  Bert you seem to have a good balanced spin on these. matters.  Are you leaning toward Bozo.  Some Stratagists are saying this may be the Republicans last chance for quite a while.  The only thing Bozo can do to help is pick a good VP.  I have heard HUCKABEE'S name thrown around. He would be a good VP for Trump.  

Craig's picture

Whatever happened to listing the issues that are important to you and then voting for that candidate who most supports those issues? Likability??

Greg Long's picture

I'm not saying I made the decision based solely on that or that people should make the decision based on that, but rather the reality is that many people did make the decision based on that. As unlikeable and controversial as Donald Trump is, when it came down to a one-on-one (basically) in Indiana, for a variety of reasons Republicans overwhelmingly chose Trump. And I would contend for some, including many blue-collar white voters, they just saw Cruz as that guy in high school who thinks he knows it all.

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Bert Perry's picture

Craig wrote:

Whatever happened to listing the issues that are important to you and then voting for that candidate who most supports those issues? Likability??

This sounds good, but only until we realize that pro-life people are a minority, as are people that favor limited spending....go down your or my list, and we get to minority status in a hurry.  Winning in politics means you've got to persuade someone else to go your way.  And to do that requires passion that is generally missing in what we typically call debate--you've got to boil things down to sound bites.  In our world, it's a moral proposition--is it right for us to do X, or not do Y?

(at least I would hope that we wouldn't build our politics off personal attacks and such)

Nothing new about this--sound bites from the past include "Honest Abe", "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too", "The New Deal", and so on. You've got to hang your rhetoric on something people can remember.

Ironic that those skilled in debate have all too often forgotten this!

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Craig's picture

.... i sure wouldn't have a problem if Cruz wanted to come run for govenor of Georgia .....

Craig's picture

I still don't get the likability factor. Its not like any of us are going to be socializing with the President.

Bert Perry's picture

The trick is that the primary job of any leader is dealing with people.  Now you may not be that worried about whether your politicians are likeable from your perspective--or your company's upper management for that matter--but if we agree that they've got to be really good with people, "likeability" is a good proxy for "job qualifications."

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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