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Ted Cruz May Be Too Conservative To Stop Trump

Ted Cruz has notched another underwhelming performance in the Northeast. OK, “underwhelming” is a bit generous. He lost all five states that were up for grabs Tuesday — each and every one by at least 35 percentage points — and finished third, behind John Kasich, in four of five. Cruz’s poor showing in such blue states — Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island — didn’t come as a surprise, but it illustrates the fundamental weakness of Cruz’s campaign. He is a factional candidate: He does well only with “very conservative” voters; moderate Republicans don’t like him, and even “somewhat conservative” voters aren’t in love with him.

When Cruz launched his campaign more than a year ago, I was skeptical of his chances for exactly this reason. I noted at the time that he would be the most conservative nominee for either major party since at least Barry Goldwater in 1964. More recent social conservative candidates who resemble Cruz, such as Pat Buchanan in 1996, Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012, struggled to get much above 20 percent of the total primary vote. Cruz has done a tad better than that, but not much.

The moderate/liberal wing of the Republican Party simply hasn’t taken to Cruz’s campaign. You can see this in the entrance and exit polls. In the 25 states that have voted so far and have exit or entrance poll data, Cruz has won an average of just 13 percent of voters who identify as either moderate or liberal. That is terrible. Leave Donald Trump aside for a second; Cruz’s other main rivals, first Marco Rubio and then John Kasich, have done much better with those groups. For states with entrance or exit poll data, I looked at support for Kasich and Rubio combined until Rubio left the race and then at Kasich’s support alone in the contests that followed. Among self-identified moderates or liberals, Rubio/Kasich has won at least 21 percent in every state.

While “moderate” can mean different things to different people, the self-identified moderates who aren’t backing Trump have tended to be well-educated, like those who went to the polls in Manhattan. And those voters are more likely than Trump supporters to oppose his views on Muslims and undocumented immigrants.

Ohio 4% 63% -59
Virginia 8 61 -53
Vermont 4 55 -51
Massachusetts 3 46 -43
Connecticut 5 47 -42
South Carolina 7 42 -35
New Hampshire 4 36 -32
Georgia 11 42 -31
Florida 12 41 -29
Michigan 13 42 -29
New York 13 41 -28
Illinois 16 43 -27
Nevada 7 33 -26
Average 13 39 -26
Iowa 9 34 -25
Arkansas 16 39 -23
Oklahoma 17 40 -23
Maryland 11 33 -22
Tennessee 11 32 -21
Alabama 14 32 -18
Pennsylvania 11 28 -17
North Carolina 20 36 -16
Missouri 24 30 -6
Texas 27 32 -5
Mississippi 21 21 0
Wisconsin 31 26 +5
Ted Cruz has failed to rally anti-Trump moderates and liberals

“Kasich + Rubio” shows combined vote until Rubio left the race.

Source: Edison Research

Cruz has run 26 percentage points behind Rubio/Kasich’s share of the moderate/liberal vote in an average of these 25 states. Even in his home state of Texas, Cruz trailed in this bloc by 5 percentage points. Only in Wisconsin was Cruz able to get a higher percentage of the moderate/liberal vote. Cruz likely needs to repeat his Wisconsin performance in future states, most notably Indiana next week, to have a shot at denying Trump the nomination.

Cruz could have made up for his weakness among moderates/liberals if he had been stronger with the center of the GOP — the voters who identify as “somewhat conservative.” Traditionally, the candidate who wins this bloc of voters in a Republican primary goes on to win the nomination. George W. Bush, for instance, lost the moderate/liberal vote to John McCain in 2000 but wrapped up the nomination by winning among “somewhat conservatives.”

Cruz, however, has struggled with this group. He has won an average of just 20 percent of “somewhat conservative” voters in the states with entrance or exit poll data thus far.

Mississippi 51% 27% 36% -9
Tennessee 39 16 25 -9
Iowa 44 19 28 -9
Arkansas 42 23 31 -8
Texas 57 37 44 -7
Georgia 37 17 24 -7
Pennsylvania 41 15 22 -7
Virginia 31 11 17 -6
Nevada 34 16 21 -5
South Carolina 35 17 22 -5
North Carolina 54 32 37 -5
Average 38 20 24 -4
New York 27 10 14 -4
Alabama 29 17 21 -4
Maryland 34 15 19 -4
Oklahoma 43 31 34 -3
Ohio 26 10 13 -3
Connecticut 28 9 12 -3
Missouri 55 38 41 -3
New Hampshire 23 9 12 -3
Florida 26 15 17 -2
Michigan 38 23 25 -2
Vermont 19 8 10 -2
Massachusetts 26 8 10 -2
Wisconsin 65 47 48 -1
Illinois 49 29 30 -1
Ted Cruz’s support has been disproportionately from the far right

All percentages are rounded.

Sources: Associated Press, Dave Leip and Edison Research

In all 25 of those states, Cruz performed worse among “somewhat conservatives” than among voters overall. That is extremely unusual compared with past candidates who have secured their party’s nominations. Most truly strong candidates don’t rely on a single ideological wing for their support — that’s also true in Democratic primaries.1 Cruz has managed to win a few states, such as Iowa and Oklahoma, without winning the “somewhat conservative” vote, but he has far more frequently lost states because of his limited appeal.

Cruz’s base has been concentrated among “very conservative” voters. And those voters are far from a majority within the Republican Party. Even in the Deep South state of Mississippi, “very conservative” voters made up only 47 percent of Republican voters in this year’s primary. Cruz’s average share among “very conservative” voters so far this year — 38 percent — isn’t high enough to make up for his deficit with other parts of the party.

Put it all together, and it’s hard not to conclude that Cruz is simply a factional candidate. The media, including FiveThirtyEight, has focused a lot on Trump’s inability to cobble together a majority of the vote in most states, but Cruz’s weaknesses have been understated. If Trump does win the nomination, it’ll be, in part, because no other candidate could unite non-Trump voters across the ideological spectrum, canceling out Trump’s inability to win a majority of the vote.


  1. In Democratic exit polls, it goes “very liberal,” “liberal,” moderate,” “conservative.”

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