Why Aren’t Cruz And Rubio Rising?

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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I was once in an airport at the same time as the boy band One Direction. That’s the only thing that could have prepared me for the kind of crowd reaction Ted Cruz gets from conservative activists.

They cheer. They practically swoon. The Texas senator works the room like an evangelist. The congregation doesn’t exactly say “amen,” but the response is equally affirming.

The Conservative Political Action Conference is no exception. CPAC attendees love Cruz. And his third place showing in the gathering’s 2015 presidential straw poll, slightly ahead of neurosurgeon Ben Carson, was certainly respectable. But at 11.5 percent of the vote, it was also much closer to fifth place Jeb Bush than leading candidates Rand Paul and Scott Walker.

For Marco Rubio, the results were even worse. The Florida senator delivered a well received speech. He may be better at crafting and delivering an aspirational message than anyone in the GOP field. Red State’s Erick Erickson said Rubio “helped himself tremendously.”

Rubio finished seventh with 3.7 percent, below Rick Santorum and just above perennial non-candidate Donald Trump. He mostly beat Republicans who didn’t show up, won’t run for president in 2016, have no shot at winning or aren’t vying to be the top conservative in the race.

If the CPAC straw poll decided the Republican nominee, the GOP would have chosen Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes and Ron Paul for president. But the scientific polling isn’t looking much better for Cruz or Rubio.

Public Policy Polling’s February national survey of Republican voters has Cruz at 5 percent, Rubio at 3 percent. An earlier CNN poll had Rubio at 6 percent and Cruz at 3.

Quinnipiac conducted the most recent Iowa poll. Cruz was at 5 percent, Rubio at 4. The Des Moines Register is generally considered one of the most reliable sources of Iowa polling. Cruz 6 percent, Rubio 4 percent.

No recent reputable New Hampshire poll has Rubio above 8 percent or Cruz above 6 percent. Their Real Clear Politics polling averages in the state are 5.8 percent and 4.4 percent, respectively. Walker, Paul, Bush and Chris Christie are all in the double digits.

It’s not unheard of for candidates to poll in the single digits this early and then zoom into the top tier later. Mike Huckabee did it in 2008, Santorum in 2012 (and it looks like he’ll have to try to do it again). Notice, however, I didn’t mention anyone who went on to win the nomination.

What’s going on here? Walker is clearly on the upswing while Cruz and Rubio are not.

For Cruz, there is a real risk he has become that guy conservatives love to hear speak but don’t necessarily want to vote for. Bob Dornan warmed up Republican crowds in 1996 with his jibes against the Clintons. The laughter and applause translated into very few votes.

Perhaps Alan Keyes is a better example. Keyes had his dedicated supporters. There was an even larger number of conservatives who clapped, cheered and cried when they heard Keyes’ impassioned stem-winders.

Then they voted for somebody else.

Unlike Keyes, Cruz has actually won elections, so perhaps he can figure this problem out. Texas is sticking by him.

Alternatively, conservatives may like what Cruz is doing in the Senate and want to keep him there. The only problem is Cruz isn’t behaving as if a lifetime in the Senate is what he’s looking for.

Rubio’s problems are more obvious: he was a member of the bipartisan Gang of Eight that pushed amnesty for illegal immigrants. The conventional wisdom in some corners was that this wouldn’t hurt him because the party previously nominated pro-amnesty George W. Bush and John McCain.

But Bush and McCain were both establishment candidates. Rubio is running as a conservative. A more establishment-friendly conservative than Cruz, perhaps, but a conservative nonetheless.

Establishment candidates can survive amnesty advocacy because they aren’t relying on the most conservative elements of the party for support. Conservative candidates have a much harder time.

Mitt Romney was able to halt Rick Perry’s momentum by assailing the Texas governor’s support for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. Romney did the same thing to Newt Gingrich after the former House speaker nearly got back into the race with a win in South Carolina. Romney baited Newt into an argument about self-deportation — “the most anti-human phrase,” Gingrich said — and Newt lost.

Even the amnesty success stories are of limited use. George W. Bush was an incumbent wartime president running after 9/11 who didn’t really start pushing amnesty in earnest until after he was safely reelected.

McCain’s campaign nearly went broke after his amnesty bill was defeated in Congress and it took an improbable series of mistakes by his opponents, such as Rudy Giuliani’s bizarre refusal to campaign in the early states, for him to get back on track.

Cruz and Rubio may need breakout performances in the debates if they are going to penetrate the top tier. Unfortunately, Rubio is better at longer speeches and, well, Keyes won debates too.

Back to Erick Erickson. “Cruz, Paul, and Rubio all have the same issue,” he wrote. “For six years the right has told America we made a mistake hiring a one term Senator for President. So it is going to be awfully hard to say the GOP should nominate a one term senator.”

Most polls show Paul partially overcoming this by appealing to a libertarian base that will be hard for Walker to poach.

Can Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz figure out their own angle?

W. James Antle III is managing editor of The Daily Caller and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.