Quora Question: What Were Ted Cruz's Mistakes?

Senator Ted Cruz gavels at a Senate Judiciary Oversight Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill on July 29, 2015. Yuri Gripas/Reuters

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Answer from Jeff H Peterson, material science and engineering PhD student:

For Ted Cruz to have been successful in his presidential run, he should have run in another year. Nobody really read the electorate properly, and I don't think Republicans really understood the nature of the support they were getting up until then.

To really understand what went on here, I think we need to first go back to the rise of the Tea Party. The Tea Party as we know it was born back in 2009[1] and it upset the standard way that the GOP does business. Yes, Ted Cruz was elected on a wave of Tea Party support, but the Tea Party was really just an outlet for the frustration that many voters felt when they didn't feel they were well represented. Conservatives who felt victimized and generally left behind by the Republican establishment flocked to the Tea Party tent with the hope that its libertarian policies would better represent their values.

With the Tea Party's more libertarian slant, voters were able to find an outlet to vent their frustration about the Washington establishment even if they weren't 100 percent behind the Tea Party's goals of limited government. The problem of voter dissatisfaction was made worse at the legislative level because the Tea Party platform mostly manifested itself in a refusal to compromise. This helped to drop congressional approval ratings to new lows and reinforce the belief that even more drastic change was needed in Washington.

Ted Cruz generally had the support of the Tea Party ("Largest Tea Party Group In America Endorses Ted Cruz"), but that doesn't mean he had the support of the Tea Party supporters. To understand this, I think it's important to recognize why the Tea Party rose to prominence. The libertarian ideas of the Tea Party have been around a long time and generally have fallen flat with the rest of the Republican electorate. Ron Paul is the classic example; back in 2008 and 2012, he was a resounding failure on the national stage. This year, Rand Paul was the more ideologically appropriate Tea Party candidate but his views never found traction. So if voters this year are suddenly not voting for Tea Party candidates, why did the Tea Party rise to prominence in the first place?

I think it's for the same reason that Bernie Sanders rose to prominence this year. There is bipartisan belief (Americans see a government of, by and for the rich) that the American system is corrupt and that this system is not designed to benefit the vast majority of Americans. Case in point: I have friends who are ardent Sanders supporters who see Trump as the next logical alternative despite his ideology being completely different from Sanders. When Obama got elected he pushed through some big government programs to get the country back on its feet after the Great Recession, but, arguably, it wasn't enough, and so there was ample ammunition to hurl at Obama about how his policies weren't working. The view that Obama's policies had failed drove the Tea Party success, and limited government seemed to be the answer in the minds of many conservatives. But in a divided government, even the most conservative Republicans haven't been able to do anything substantial so conservatives are still left frustrated[2]. While Cruz certainly tows the Tea Party line when it comes to what role government should have, or rather what role it shouldn't have, the message doesn't resonate as well with conservatives since they've been heard it so much before.

Enter Trump.

Just about every Republican didn't take him seriously, and they thought the American public wouldn't take him seriously either until it was too late. Trump either understood or blundered into the core insecurities that many conservatives feel these days and offered a simple, hard-line, no-apologies solution for the lower- and middle-class: make American great again. This message really resounded with conservatives who were looking for something new. Again, many conservatives might try to stop me here and say, "Wait a minute, Trump is not from the Tea Party," but, as this March Reuters article put it, Trump's appeal divides Tea Party loyalties in crucial states. This allows him to build a broad coalition of supporters among both social conservatives who feel victimized by the increasing support for liberal values and blue-collar economic conservatives who don't believe in government assistance programs but do recognize that government needs to do something to help their plight, whether it be direct or indirect. The latter group is also very happy with the assistance they already receive including Social Security, Medicare and the home mortgage deduction, so they also don't want anybody to change that. The most extreme of these people were the ones who would sometimes hold the frankly ridiculous signs saying, "Get your government hands off my Medicare" and the like.

I think that even if Trump hadn't entered the race, Ted Cruz may well not have become the nominee. One could argue that if not Trump, then some other figure would have tapped into this resentment and rose to prominence instead. Basically, nobody understood where conservative support was coming from and how to tap into the core motivating factors. That or they failed to reconcile what needed to be done to impress the electorate with what needed to be done to woo the donor class. In my opinion, the GOP has done a good job hiding the fundamental schism that exists between what the average voter wants and what the GOP elite want, but now that divide is finally coming into the light.

  1. Although the Tea Party rose to prominence in 2009, it was not actually born then. According to the wikipedia article on the Tea Party movement, the official name started in 2002, but during the Bush years, I think the movement only attracted support of the more libertarian conservatives because there was less institutional support to fight government expansion. Bush was after all responsible for a large expansion in executive authority and the passage of Medicare Part D, which was the biggest expansion of the welfare state up until the PPACA under Obama. It wasn't until Obama entered the White House that Tea Party conservatism became a true force for conservatives to rally behind to oppose Obama.
  2. I'd argue that blue-collar conservatives would still be frustrated since if the Tea Party actually did get us to default on the debt and drastically rein in the welfare state that people would realize that these programs were things they actually wanted.

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