A Texas take on Ted Cruz's presidential bid
© Getty Images

When Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzIn partisan slugfest, can Chip Roy overcome Trump troubles? Cruz: Hunter Biden attacks don't move 'a single voter' GOP clears key hurdle on Barrett's Supreme Court nomination, setting up Monday confirmation MORE (R-Texas) launched his U.S. Senate bid, he was the preferred choice of a mere 3 percent of Texas Republican primary voters in a field of a half-dozen credible candidates. Chief among his rivals was a powerful three-term lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, who possessed a net worth of $200 million, enjoyed the near-unanimous support of the Texas GOP establishment and began the 2012 election cycle with a commanding lead in the polls. A year-and-a-half later, Cruz soundly defeated Dewhurst in a primary runoff with 57 percent of the vote and was on his way to the U.S. Senate.

One thing 2012 taught us in Texas is that one should never underestimate Ted Cruz. But, that said, there are several noteworthy differences between the dynamics of Cruz's 2012 Senate and 2016 presidential campaigns.


In the 2012 U.S. Senate contest, Dewhurst pursued a "Rose Garden strategy" that left the door wide open for Cruz to obtain the support of a lion's share of the influential Tea Party and social conservative activists who play an outsized role in Texas's low turnout Republican primaries (e.g., 6 percent of the voting-age population cast a ballot in the 2012 runoff). In his current presidential run, Cruz will face fierce competition for the movement conservative and social conservative vote from a plethora of talented and highly motivated candidates.

Cruz had more than 18 months between his campaign launch in January 2011 and the July 2012 runoff to attend hundreds of events hosted by conservative groups throughout the state. While it may be possible for Cruz to partially replicate this grassroots strategy in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada (combined, their population is less than half of the Lone Star State's), such an approach will not be feasible in the subsequent 50-plus contests.

William F. Buckley's "Buckley Rule" states Republicans should nominate the most conservative candidate available as long as he or she is viable/electable. In Texas, Republican candidates have won 121-straight statewide elections, with the last GOP defeat occurring more than 20 years ago, in 1994. Today, whomever the Texas GOP nominates for statewide office is by definition electable. General election viability was therefore not even a remote concern for Texas Republican primary voters in 2012. It will, however, be a concern for many of the nation's Republican presidential primary and caucus voters in 2016. As part of their voting decision, they will take into account how the different Republican nominees are likely to fare in pivotal battleground states such as Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado and Iowa, where the winner of the November 2016 presidential election will be decided. These voters are well aware that it's tough to imagine a scenario where, for instance, the Republican candidate loses in Florida and Ohio but still manages to garner a majority in the Electoral College.

Cruz would not be running for president if he did not see a path to victory, however long and narrow it may be. Certainly back in 2011, Cruz was one of the few who could envision such a path, and, with the assistance of a skilled and innovative campaign team, followed it to perfection over 18 arduous months. But today, once again Cruz finds himself labeled a long shot, and we'll have to wait about a year or so to know if the pundits who once again discount his prospects are once again wrong.

However, under the most likely scenario — where Cruz fails to capture the GOP nomination — he should still emerge from the 2016 campaign more powerful and influential then ever. Cruz excels on the stump and will be the most skilled debater in the Republican debates and other candidate forums that will take place over the next year. Furthermore, the primary campaign will provide Cruz with an ideal venue to, like a big-tent Texas revival evangelist from the past century, preach his gospel of constitutional conservatism and recruit new converts to his cause from across the nation.

Jones is the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy's fellow in political science, the Joseph D. Jamail chair in Latin American studies and the chair of the Department of Political Science at Rice University. Follow him @MarkPJonesTX.