Let’s dispose of this myth once and for all. Every presidential election cycle we hear it: “Well, they said Ronald Reagan could never be elected.”
We’re hearing this chestnut again in the wake of Sen. Ted Cruz’s announcement this week that he’s running for president. Kevin Williamson over at the National Review — while correctly pointing out that you should never say never in politics — argues that the people who say Cruz can’t win should look at the Reagan example before getting too confident in their predictions.
Well, I’m looking, and I’m just not seeing it. Reagan was the favorite heading into the 1980 Republican primary. And no, this isn’t only evident in hindsight, it’s a belief born out of the data that was available in the first half of 1979.
Reagan was cruising in the “endorsement primary.” Endorsements from party bigwigs, as I wrote about Monday, are key in presidential primaries. They act as a seal of approval for voters, and in some cases, endorsers provide the machinery needed to get out the vote. According to data from “The Party Decides,” Reagan had 51 endorsements from party actors through March 1979. This included five senators, 23 House members, two state party chairs and one governor. Weighting for the position of the endorser (i.e., senators count for more than representatives), Reagan had an astounding 90 percent of endorsements by party officials at that point.
Cruz has nowhere near that level of support. He couldn’t even earn the endorsement of his fellow Texas senator, John Cornyn, or fellow tea partyer Sen. Mike Lee. Reagan, who had honed his “common touch” as an actor and TV pitchman, was also a respected two-term governor of California, which at that time was a swing state. He gracefully bowed out of the 1976 Republican convention. In other words, Reagan gave Republican officials a number of reasons to like him. Cruz … hasn’t.
It’s the same story with GOP rank and file. Cruz has about 5 percent of the vote, both nationally and in Iowa and New Hampshire, according to recent polls. That’s good for seventh or eighth place. Polls in early 1979, by contrast, clearly placed Reagan in the top tier of candidates. When surveys included Gerald Ford as an option, Reagan and Ford each garnered around 30 percent support. Without Ford, Reagan was polling in first place with 40 percent.
Pollsters thought so highly of Reagan’s chances in early 1979 that, according to the polling database kept by the Roper Center (paywall), they didn’t even bother testing President Jimmy Carter against any other Republican candidates. Reagan was neck and neck with Carter in general election polls conducted during the first half of 1979. Cruz trails Hillary Clinton by a mile (an average of about 16 percentage points).
Looking at the evidence, Reagan was a very serious contender in early 1979 in a way that Cruz simply isn’t right now. Can Cruz win? Sure, anything is possible. But the best evidence we have suggests it’s very unlikely, and Reagan’s run in 1980 doesn’t say otherwise.