LITCHFIELD, NH—It’s no secret that Ted Cruz is running hard to the right as he pursues the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. The strategy is pretty clear: He’s pushing to out-conservative the rest of the field. Cruz wants, as he says repeatedly on the campaign trail, to lead a “grassroots army” of “courageous conservatives.”
But how would the tea-party Texan win over the independents and Democrats needed in the general election?
That’s the question Cruz got at a New Hampshire gun range Sunday afternoon from a Cruz fan who had driven up from Massachusetts to express his concerns, in person, about Cruz’s crossover appeal.
The senator had a two-part answer, both elements of which are topics of debate.
The first is that “millions of conservatives who showed up in ‘04 “¦ stayed home in ‘08, and stayed home in even bigger numbers in 2012.” (GOP strategist Karl Rove, notably, has disagreed with that analysis in the pages of The Wall Street Journal.) The second is that the bigger the ideological gap between Democrat and Republican—and the bolder the GOP candidate—the more likely the traditional Democratic-leaning voters will actually switch sides in 2016.
We’ve decided to print Cruz’s answer in full because, in it, he describes in detail the unusual intellectual underpinning of his campaign and his strategy:
“Let’s talk about how you win an election generally,” Cruz began. “You know, what is maddening about politics is there is this group of consultants who keep running national campaigns. They keep losing. And then they keep coming back to Republicans saying, Support us while we go make the exact same mistakes all over again. “¦
“If you compare 2004, the last race Republicans won, to ‘08 and ‘12, by far the biggest difference are the millions of conservatives who showed up in ‘04, who stayed home in ‘08, and stayed home in even bigger numbers in 2012. So how do you win? How do you win? I think the key question is: How do we bring back those millions of conservatives?
“Now, here’s what I called the Washington fallacy, which is what the consultants believe. They look at voters on a spectrum from right to left. And their view is if your opponent is here [he holds one hand up], you want to be infinitesimally to the right [he squeezes his other hand next to the first]. So you capture every marginal voter up until where they are. Now, I understand that theory in the abstract. It’s not a crazy theory in the abstract. The problem is we keep trying. And we keep losing. Because every time you do that, millions and millions of people over here [moves his Republican hand to the right] say, To heck with this thing.
“The way you win is you draw a line in the sand. You make a clear meaningful distinction why this election matters to you, and two things happen. Number one, you turn out millions of [conservative] voters. But number two, and this goes right to your question, it’s also how you earn crossover votes.
“You think about it, in the last 50 years, there’s one Republican who has a group of Democrats named after him: Reagan Democrats. If the Washington theory were right, you’d have Gerald Ford Democrats [crowd laughs] or Bob Dole Democrats [crowd laughs louder]. They don’t exist.
“You think about 1980—and understand why. In 1980, Ronald Reagan didn’t say, I’m exactly like Jimmy Carter, except imperceptibly to the right. Reagan drew a line in the sand. He said, There is a fundamental difference between me and Jimmy Carter. …
“Let’s say you’re a Michigan auto worker. You’ve been a Democrat your whole life, your parents were Democrats your whole life, if you go in to vote, and the two candidates are neck-and-neck, they’re indistinguishable, what are you going to do? You vote Democrat. That’s your team, that’s your side. Why would you switch?
“But what happened in 1980 was there was a sharp difference between the two, and millions of FDR Democrats—blue-collar, union members, working-class, gun owners, pro-life, strong national defense—millions of them said, Hey, those are my values. And even though for generations their families had been Democrats, they crossed over.
“So I’ll tell you the answer and look, when you talk about Massachusetts, you’ve got a lot of working-class men and women, a lot Irish and Italian—and I’m half Irish and Italian—working men and women. This election in 2016 needs to be a populist campaign on behalf of hard-working men and women of this country against the corruption of Washington.”
For the record, the Massachusetts man wasn’t fully satisfied. He followed up to ask if the presence of John Anderson, who ran as an independent for president in 1980 and won 6.6 percent of the popular vote, meant Cruz was miscalculating or misreading that election somehow. Cruz said he wasn’t. Anderson had won “not that many votes,” Cruz said.
A few minutes later, Cruz was off to the firing range. “Let’s go shoot some guns,” he declared.