It's increasingly looking like, barring some major surge forward by Marco Rubio, that Ted Cruz is the most likely to win the Republican nominee. A Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday shows that Cruz is only 4 points behind Donald Trump, who's supported by 28 percent of likely primary voters. Cruz's strategy of drafting Trump, by basically agreeing with what he says, is working. If he can get one final push during the early stages of the primary, he can use all that momentum to overtake the current frontrunner, who still runs a greater-than-even chance of self-immolating at some point.
But Cruz may not even need Trump to hit the self-destruct button in order to win this thing. While most of the media obsesses about Trump, Cruz has quietly set himself up to go in for the kill once the voting starts. He is, in essence, Trump Plus: He's got all the qualities that right-wing voters love in Trump, but believe it or not he has even more bigotries and right-wing fancies to offer than even Trump.
In a primary season where voters clearly want the sleaziest asshole they can running against Clinton, Cruz simply is a better choice over Trump. And the fact that he knows well enough to wait until the last minute to make that case, making it harder for Trump to come up with a rejoinder, shows exactly how crafty Cruz is.
Cruz simply has more to offer the right-wing voter that would rather burn this country to the ground than share it with racial minorities, feminists, immigrants, and LGBT people. There's three major areas where he simply has a stronger case that he is what the conservative base wants.
1) Evangelical endorsements. White evangelicals constitute a full half of Republican voters and another substantial bunch is white conservative Catholics who have the same political views and respond to the same Jesus-heavy messaging. Cruz has been quietly fortifying his support with this group by getting the evangelical leaders on his side.
Earlier this month, evangelical leaders had a secret meeting, where, according to The Washington Post, "top national activists agreed to roll out a stream of endorsements, many timed for maximum impact between now and Super Tuesday on March 1, when a dozen states will hold primary of or caucuses." Cruz wedged out other evangelical favorites, like Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson, for these endorsements. Since then, a couple of key endorsements, from James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, have been released. Clearly, more are coming.
While Trump is hollering about Mexicans and Muslims, Cruz didn't forget that a huge portion of the Republican constituency is just as, if not more, obsessed with beating down gay people and independent women. While Trump says all the right things about banning abortion and gay marriage, you can tell his heart just isn't in it the way it is for Cruz.
It's also important to remember that the Supreme Court will be hearing arguments about abortion, in a case that might be the death knell for Roe vs. Wade, during this time, probably in March or April. That means that there will be an uptick in rallies, op-eds, and news coverage of this issue in the next few months. This will only drive more voters into Cruz's arms.
Ben Carson is still holding down 10 percent of the votes, according to Quinnipiac. Those are almost surely evangelicals by and large, and Cruz will probably pick most of those up when Carson drops out.
2) Anti-government mania. As I reported last week, the conservative media is in full revolt, furious at House Republicans for agreeing to a budget deal instead of shutting down the government in an effort to blackmail the White House into agreeing to defund Planned Parenthood and keep Syrian refugees out of the country. But really, the particular demands that conservatives have are secondary to the rage. At this point, shutting down the government — or threatening to — is its own reward. Conservatives have spent decades demonizing the government, and so a shutdown is just emotionally rewarding, regardless of what the circumstances are.
Right now, this shutdown fever is helping Trump, whose shortsightedness and posturing on this issue appeals to equally shortsighted voters. But unlike Trump, Cruz can make a legitimate case that he's actually tried to shut down the government. Cruz's enthusiasm for shutting down the government is unparalleled. His constant clamoring to come up with an excuse, any excuse, to shut down the government is one of the major reasons that so many other Republicans hate him. But, as my colleague Sean Illing points out, all these establishment Republican attacks on Cruz just shore up his claim that he's an outsider like Trump.
Except he's been tested. Trump says that he will stand up for half-baked right wing "values" like shutting down the government for kicks, but Cruz? Cruz can legitimately say he's done it.
3) Electability. It may not seem like it now, but electability is a major concern for Republican primary voters. Public Policy Polling shows that over half of voters consider a candidate's ability to beat the Democrat in the race to be more important than ideological purity. The only reason this hasn't quite hurt Trump in the polls, yet anyway, is that Republican voters are under the bizarre impression that Trump has the best chance of beating Clinton in a general election.
But that impression might start to buckle soon. The Quinnipiac poll shows that Trump is the only Republican candidate who fares badly in a Clinton match-up. Cruz breaks even. More to the point, everyone who isn't in the bag for Trump hates the man at this point. Half of Americans say they would be embarrassed if Trump won the presidency. Cruz, who hasn't gotten nearly as much media attention, hasn't established himself as a villain in voter eyes nearly as much.
Cruz gives Republican voters exactly what they want: He's more electable than Trump, without sacrificing an iota of ideological purity. In fact, Cruz is far more of the complete package when it comes to ideological purity, far more than Trump, whose views are all over the map. If Cruz can get across to the voters that he's the complete package---and there's every reason to believe that will be exactly his argument---he will start leeching more votes off Trump.
All that said, Trump still has a solid chance of winning this thing. A recent study shows that Trump's poll numbers may underestimate his actual support levels, to the tune of 6 percentage points. For understandable reasons, admitting to a live human being over the phone that you are a big enough dunce to support Donald Trump is humiliating, and so a not-insignificant number of people lie about it, saying they prefer someone who sounds more reasonable instead.
That most voters still haven't decided who they want to support likely only exacerbates this situation. If you're undecided, telling the phone person that they're supporting another candidate is easier, but many of them might, when they show up at the polls, give into their heart's desire and, in the privacy of the voting booth, pull the lever for Trump instead. A well-timed controversy — maybe Trump finds some exciting new group of people to insult or Clinton goads him into calling her the c-word — right before a major primary could boost Trump's numbers, as aggrieved voters rally around him.
Things are still in chaos, and there's no way to know for certain what's going to happen. But don't count Cruz out yet. He's there, quietly chugging along, and he will make his move when the time is ripe. And woe to us all when he does it.