The thinking goes as follows: If Cruz loses Iowa, he peters out in New Hampshire and doesn’t pose a risk of finishing in a respectable second place. That allows the establishment winner out of the Granite State to build momentum as the anti-Trump alternative. A decent number of Cruz’s supporters, when asked to choose a second candidate, gravitate to Rubio. Polls show many more of Trump supporters, by contrast, would support Cruz. And even with Trump’s improving favorability numbers within the GOP, there are more Republican voters who wouldn’t vote for him under any circumstances than say the same about the senator from Texas.
These strategists are looking at Trump’s increasingly bellicose attacks against Cruz with glee. In their view, only Trump can successfully put a dent in Cruz’s sky-high favorability among Republicans, which is a precondition to blocking him from the nomination.
But there’s one big problem with the theory being embraced by many party pooh-bahs. It risks handing the election to Trump on a silver platter—helping knock out his strongest rival while watching helplessly as more-moderate alternatives blow each other up in the process. The wishful thinking behind such a strategy is that Cruz is utterly unelectable, while Trump is unpredictable enough to win a general election. In reality, Cruz looks like an electable standard-bearer, while Trump could blow the party to smithereens.
Cruz, despite being loathed by his colleagues in Washington, is a better general-election candidate than his detractors believe. His general election favorability ratings are currently respectable, and he runs competitively with Clinton in early matchups. His professional resume and academic credentials are exceptional. The political environment for Democrats is dismal, and is as ill-suited for an establishment figure like Hillary Clinton as it is for a hardline conservative. Despite their differences, Cruz’s voting record in the Senate is not dissimilar from Rubio’s. Both have near-equal vote ratings from the Chamber of Commerce, American Conservative Union, and Club for Growth. And if Cruz is as phony as his critics argue—former McCain adviser Mark Salter wrote, “I don’t think any senator really believes Ted Cruz is a conviction politician, save for his conviction that he ought to be president”—he would likely inch to the middle in a general election.