Swing Voters Be Damned: Cruz Pivots and Republican Big Shots Come Home

Republican Presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas talks to a reporter while standing with supporter Court Oviatt of L
Republican Presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas talks to a reporter while standing with supporter Court Oviatt of Logan, Iowa, after a campaign speech at the public library in Onawa, Iowa, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

In the good old days there was a formula for Republican presidential candidates, almost all of whom were mainstream moderate conservatives: Placate the red-meat base early and then pivot to more centrist positions that could appeal to swing voters across America. It worked for Reagan, Bush and Bush. It didn't work for Dole, McCain and Romney.

The calculus was simple. Primary voters, in both parties, tend to be ideological and winning primaries means talking their language. General election voters tend to be pragmatic and fearful of ideological extremes. Ideology won primaries. National and moderate themes won in November. The best example was Bush II's late embrace of "compassionate conservatism."

Times have changed, and the smartest kid on the block thinks he's figured it out. That would be Ted Cruz. He is certainly running in the primaries from the hard, ideological right. His tone has been described as "brutal" and uncompromising. His record in the Senate is oppositional and disruptive. He asks no quarter from Democrats or Republican moderates, and swears he won't back down for the general election.

And that is how he will win. Swing voters be damned. Establishment Republicans be damned. Stick to ideas and rhetoric that inflames the base, even if the swing voter doesn't like it.

This new calculus is based on an insight that presidential elections are no longer national political contests. No Republican is going to win California and New York. No Democrat is going to win Texas and Kansas. The battle is for a few states like Florida, Ohio and Colorado. Swing voters elsewhere be damned. And maybe swing voters in swing states be damned. If you can motivate more red-meat conservatives to come out, you may be able to concede swing voters to the Dems and still win the state.

New political ideas spring up suddenly, it seems. Remember when Kevin Phillips figured out that the Democratic "Solid South" was flipping over to the Republicans. Weird, was the conventional response. But it happened and politics changed.

Cruz may be gaining some traction with parts of the Republican establishment that have been scared by his style and hard edges. Take Andrew Puzder, CEO of Hardee's and a big, big money guy. He's thinking of moving to Cruz: ""My one issue is whether somebody is going to win. My big question is: What is your path to a general election victory?" He rejects the old persuade-the-swing-voter mantra that lost for Romney. "The base didn't turn out to vote, and Senator Cruz understands that needs to happen."

If this works we return to a theory of the presidency that elevates sectional and ideological bases above a unifying, national function. This ain't chopped liver for the country. But if Cruz's cold calculus is correct, it's a pathway for Cruz that everyone else has shrugged off, to their peril. And ours.