How Ted Cruz's Edge in Texas Helps Him in the Debate Showdown with Donald Trump

With the first GOP debate in about a month looming Tuesday night, the political press has turned its collective gaze on Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s rise in both national and early state polling as they speculate on whether Cruz and/or Donald Trump will attack the other in prime time. Cruz’s rise in the polls, including a Des Moines Register poll that found him leading Trump 31 percent to 21 percent, have led observers to the late realization that the early Texas primary date, March 1st, provides a major advantage to Cruz -- one that has been central to an overall campaign strategy heretofore acknowledged mainly for Cruz’s determination to stay the course, not peak too early, and stay out of Trump’s way as he scorched any candidate who dared speak ill of him.  

The immediate question about the mutually reinforcing phenomena of Cruz’s recent success in the polls and the attendant media attention he has received is whether Cruz is emerging from the pack to become a real contender for the GOP nomination. Skeptics suggest that he may simply be having his turn in successive cycles of consideration and disposal as an alternative to the real estate magnate turned reality TV star candidate. In this view, Cruz has stepped into a variant of the 2012 GOP primary contest that saw that electorate consider Romney alternatives before eventually determining that Romney would have to do. Trump, of course, is no Mitt Romney, and his de facto status as front-runner has re-factored this dynamic. In the current campaign, the large field of GOP candidates, a thus far durable minority bloc made up of Trump voters, and the absence of a consensus, non-Trump alternative have provided the GOP try-outs with a very different playing field. The sizable bloc of GOP voters with a negative view of Trump seek an alternative, but don't have the benefit of the cue provided by the emergence of a clear default favored by party elites (like Romney or McCain). In the wake of the under-performance or outright failure of the early elite favorites (e.g. Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, perhaps even Rick Perry), Sen. Marco Rubio seems poised to occupy this role. But party elites have been slow to coalesce around him. Perhaps spooked by the failure of the other possibilities, they continue to dither and hold closed door meetings about Donald Trump, all the while publicly fretting that as they fiddle, the GOP is burning.

The absence of an elite consensus on a Trump alternative in a crowded field only increases the centrality of a delegate-rich (and just plain rich) Texas primary held early in the process – and, consequently, the value of Cruz’s position in the state. Thus, as Trump and Cruz take the debate stage, it’s useful to look at how Texans viewed them in the most recent University of Texas / Texas Tribune Poll, conducted in early November. They were tied at 27 percent each in the GOP primary ballot, but the poll also revealed important features about the voters' perceptions of each in their favorability ratings. Cruz has a strong hold on key GOP constituencies in Texas that Trump will find hard to steal from him, especially within the overlapping but still relatively distinct circles of Tea Party identifiers, Christian fundamentalists, and extreme conservatives.

Tea Party identifiers, the engine of turnout in the last three GOP primary elections in Texas, assessed both Cruz and Trump favorably – but both their overall assessment and the intensity of their ratings of Cruz were higher.

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Very favorable3%29%29%
Somewhat favorable9%24%33%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable7%7%21%
Somewhat unfavorable10%13%10%
Very unfavorable68%25%7%
Don't know / No opinion3%1%0%

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categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Very favorable3%30%70%
Somewhat favorable5%32%19%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable14%11%5%
Somewhat unfavorable8%11%5%
Very unfavorable65%10%0%
Don't know / No opinion4%6%1%

If we look at one of the more reliable indicators of conservative Christianity, biblical literalism, we also see Cruz enjoying a significant advantage.  Cruz's advantage is even clearer if you click on the legend to toggle off the non-literalist responses (i.e. the orange and green bars) - Trump suffers from high "very unfavorable" ratings.

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The Bible is the word of God, to be taken literallyThe Bible is the word of God, not to be taken literallyThe Bible is a book written by men
Very favorable21%17%10%
Somewhat favorable19%23%8%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable11%12%10%
Somewhat unfavorable10%12%12%
Very unfavorable33%35%60%
Don't know / No opinion6%1%0%

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categoryThe Bible is the word of God, to be taken literallyThe Bible is the word of God, not to be taken literallyThe Bible is a book written by men
Very favorable35%26%10%
Somewhat favorable15%22%8%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable15%12%7%
Somewhat unfavorable9%10%9%
Very unfavorable15%25%63%
Don't know / No opinion11%6%4%

If we shift to the prism of ideological self-identification, extreme conservatives also have a more favorable view of Cruz.

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categoryLeaning conservativeSomewhat conservativeExtremely conservative
Very favorable17%19%38%
Somewhat favorable22%30%24%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable10%14%10%
Somewhat unfavorable20%14%10%
Very unfavorable28%23%16%
Don't know / No opinion3%1%2%

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categoryLeaning conservativeSomewhat conservativeExtremely conservative
Very favorable20%48%65%
Somewhat favorable25%27%19%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable12%12%7%
Somewhat unfavorable21%6%4%
Very unfavorable14%5%3%
Don't know / No opinion9%3%3%

Cruz’s advantages in favorability ratings among these subgroups, of course, are partial reflections of his better overall ratings among Republicans, 73 percent of whom view him favorably compared to only 15 percent who view him unfavorably. Trump’s ratings among Republicans are much less impressive though certainly not dismal at 54 percent favorable to 31 percent unfavorable. None of these numbers should surprise – Cruz, after all, has won statewide election in a state in which Republicans enjoy a monopoly on statewide elected office, and the Republican electorate, like Cruz, are to the ideological right of the national party.  

What is less obvious is that as Cruz side-steps closer to center stage Tuesday night amidst speculation about the end of the Cruz-Trump détente, Cruz’s calculations almost certainly include a predictable stronghold in Texas. Even should Trump continue to set the tone of the campaign through the March 1 “SEC primaries,” he has little hope of gaining any defections from the core constituencies of Cruz supporters. More likely is a Cruz campaign that stands to benefit in Texas from Trump defectors. In November, Cruz was the second choice of 38 percent of Trump supporters, which made him their number one alternative. This number can more plausibly be expected to increase than to decrease should Cruz emerge as a top tier candidate in any or all of the results in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, or South Carolina.  

This isn’t to say that his position in Texas inoculates Cruz against any exposure – part of the news media’s interest in Cruz extends to the prospects of conflict between Cruz and Rubio breaking out in the debate, too. Rubio’s increased attention to Cruz could provide Trump with his own opportunity to free ride on efforts to damage the junior senator from Texas, but Rubio finds himself in the smallest corner of a very unstable triangle, in which the attempt to attack Trump and Cruz could make him the target of both – and publicly tagged with the establishment label he is so assiduously avoiding in this year of the disgruntled outsider. As this triangle become increasingly central to the nomination fight, Cruz's position has become blurred in a way that Rubio might envy. As one Republican consultant put it in a blind quote in a story in The Hill Monday, "the GOP establishment may hate Ted Cruz, but they fear Donald Trump." This isn't lost on Cruz, and it seems no coincidence that Cruz's most prominent criticism of Trump came not in a public setting, but as The New York Times' Maggie Haberman described it, "in a Madison Avenue office, with about 70 people pressed around a table."

The stakes of openly confronting Trump in Tuesday’s debate are actually not very high for Cruz, given his Texas backstop. There is likely more advantage to deflecting the conflict as a media-induced sideshow than in taking the fight to Trump at this point in the process – especially given the fact that Cruz can essentially be a free rider, leaving the heavy lifting to the ever-expanding supply of high profile Trump detractors. On the other hand, a successful skirmish with Trump, where so many others have failed – either an on-target attack or even a spirited defense – would generate headlines that would add to Cruz’s current momentum. But short of spectacular failure – not what one would expect of Cruz in a setting in which he has thus far been very comfortable and mostly effective – Cruz enters the debate with a lot of room to maneuver vis-a-vis Trump, with the very appealing option of keeping his powder dry until the battle moves to Texas and the rest of the former confederacy. In the meantime, the GOP elite will be left to continue considering their very surprising options.