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Ted Cruz. Ted Cruz? Ted Cruz!

I still have many doubts about Ted Cruz’s ability to win the Republican nomination. He has a lot of precedent working against him; as I wrote seven months ago, “Let’s Be Serious About Ted Cruz From The Start: He’s Too Extreme And Too Disliked To Win.” And Cruz has, if anything, become even more hated by his colleagues in Washington, which hurts him tremendously in the all important endorsement primary. He continues to make controversial statements on a range of issues that hurt his viability in a general election.

But I think it’s time to at least walk the headline back a bit.

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Why?

1. Republican voters like Ted Cruz … a lot

Cruz isn’t getting a ton of support in horse-race polls. But he’s doing OK — particularly in a 15-candidate field. He is polling fourth in an average of the last three live-interview polls, at 8 percent. That’s higher than he was when he launched his bid, which is impressive given how much oxygen Donald Trump is taking up.

Long term, if voters don’t like you, it doesn’t matter how good your organization is or how much establishment support you have. And Cruz is among the best-liked Republican candidates. In an average of the last three live-interview polls1 in which Republican voters were asked whether they had a favorable or unfavorable impression of at least half the candidates, Cruz ranks fourth in net favorability (favorable minus unfavorable) at +33 percentage points.

CANDIDATES NET FAVORABILITY
Ben Carson +62
Marco Rubio +48
Carly Fiorina +45
Ted Cruz +33
Mike Huckabee +26
Jeb Bush +24
Chris Christie +21
John Kasich +17
Bobby Jindal +16
Donald Trump +15
Rick Santorum +12
Rand Paul -1
Lindsey Graham -12
George Pataki -20

Cruz is well ahead of current poll leader Trump, and Cruz’s general popularity suggests that he has a better chance to coalesce support as candidates drop out of the race. That’s key in a race with 15 candidates.

And this isn’t just a national phenomenon. Cruz is also well-liked in Iowa, which shouldn’t be too surprising given his appeals to Christian conservatives. When I wrote about the state of play in Iowa late last month, Cruz had a net favorability of +35 percentage points there. That’s good enough for fifth-best among all the Republican candidates. A win in Iowa would be big news for Cruz, and — given that he is well-liked nationally — could give him momentum in South Carolina and beyond.

A strong net favorability rating doesn’t necessarily portend doing well in the horse race. There are plenty of examples of popular candidates who don’t win many votes. Still, you need to be well-liked to win, and Cruz is well-liked.

2. The grassroots love Cruz

The Republican establishment has (so far) not rallied around a candidate, and that may leave a little more room for the grassroots to influence the nominating process. That would benefit Cruz. According to a survey from Huffington Post and YouGov of Republican activists, Cruz is currently in second place to Trump. And Cruz’s net favorability rating among activists (+53 percentage points) is far ahead of Trump’s (+19). Grassroots support is incredibly important in caucus states like Iowa.

Cruz is bolstered, in large part, because he is the top choice of born-again Christians and tea party Republicans. In the past, we’ve seen candidates who match Cruz’s profile (socially conservative alternatives to the establishment choice) fail — think Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012. But Cruz isn’t likely to encounter the same money problems they did (more on this in a moment). Additionally, as the fight over who should be the speaker of the House has demonstrated, the outsider/angry wing of the Republican Party is having more success than ever.

Endorsement Primary

Interactive: We’re tracking 2016 presidential primary endorsements. Check out the most important race before the actual race »

3. Cruz’s ideology fits today’s Republican Party

FiveThirtyEight often measures the ideology of candidates by using a combination of their congressional votes, fundraising base and public issue statements. On this metric, Cruz is the most conservative candidate in the race this year and more conservative than any modern Republican nominee for president. That makes me hesitant to give Cruz any sort of a real chance to win.

Republican voters, though, have clearly gotten more conservative over the past couple of decades. That probably gives Cruz a better shot at winning the nomination than history would suggest.

enten-datalab-scottwalker-1

More importantly, voters don’t see Cruz as extreme. When YouGov asked respondents in June to place themselves and the candidates on an ideological scale from 0 (very liberal) to 100 (very conservative), Cruz’s score, 72, just about equaled the average Republican adult’s score, 71.

CANDIDATE AVERAGE IDEOLOGICAL SCORE (VOTER ASSIGNED)
George Pataki 50
John Kasich 54
Chris Christie 55
Jeb Bush 60
Lindsey Graham 61
Carly Fiorina 62
Donald Trump 63
Rand Paul 63
Marco Rubio 64
Ben Carson 65
Bobby Jindal 67
Rick Perry 69
Scott Walker 70
Rick Santorum 70
Mike Huckabee 71
Ted Cruz 72

In the past couple of election cycles, Republican voters have nominated candidates (John McCain and Mitt Romney) who were more moderate than the average Republican. Will this primary be different? Republicans really want to beat Hillary Clinton, so it will be interesting to watch how they balance ideology and electability.

4. Cruz has a lot of money

The candidate with the most money doesn’t always win, but you can’t win without money. You need money to build an organization (that Cruz is building) and pay for advertisements. Cruz has raised $26.5 million over the campaign and has $13.8 million in cash on hand. Based on third-quarter fundraising reports so far, Cruz’s cash-on-hand total may be tops among the Republican field. And according to a report from The Washington Post, Cruz has a large number of donors who have not yet maxed out to the campaign — they can still give more.

Rick Perry and Scott Walker’s early exits from the race showed that super PAC money can be overrated, but it’s still better to have than not. And the super PACs and PACs supporting Cruz had roughly $37.5 million on-hand through June 30, which is more than any candidate besides Jeb Bush.

A well-liked, well-financed candidate is dangerous in a primary.

5. Donald Trump and Ben Carson

When I wrote my first Cruz piece, it was difficult to imagine that a candidate who regularly makes more incendiary statements than Cruz would jump into the lead. Yet here we are with two: Trump and Ben Carson regularly combine for over 40 percent (and sometimes over 50 percent) in national polls. Early polls are, of course, not that predictive of the final result. Still, Trump has been in the lead far longer than the candidates who took turns surging in 2012.

Cruz sounds like an elder statesman compared with Carson and Trump. The longer Carson and Trump are ahead, the more likely it will be that the party actors will be scared into making a compromise with the base. Someone like Cruz who has actually held elected office and is liked by the grassroots could be that candidate.

So why not Cruz?

I’ve listed five reasons why I’m taking a second look at Cruz, but I don’t want to understate my skepticism of his chance of winning. He still hasn’t addressed the No. 1 reason I thought his campaign would have trouble: support from the party actors. In campaigns since 1980, no candidate hated by the establishment has won.


Check out our live coverage of the GOP debate.

Footnotes

  1. Bloomberg, CNN/ORC and Quinnipiac.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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