My dinner with Ted Cruz

Does Ted Cruz have a shot at replacing Barack Obama as leader of the free world in January 2017? I think so.
March 31, 2016

Does Senator Ted Cruz have a shot at replacing Barack Obama as leader of the free world in January 2017? I think so.

All candidates love to create the impression that they will win. At a private dinner in Los Angeles Wednesday night, Cruz was no different. He knew just what to say to make the case that he’s on a winning track.

The evening’s ground rules prevent me from sharing specific names and quotes. But I can write about my general impressions and observations after seeing Cruz interact with about 20 Republican players and donors, some of whom had previously supported other candidates.

Cruz’s remarks centered on two challenges—winning the Republican nomination and winning the general election.

He wasn’t cocky about his chances. He spoke in terms of probabilities. He sees a low probability that Trump will have the required number of delegates to win the nomination outright. He threw out enough data on past history, demographics and polling to suggest a much higher probability that we will see a contested convention in Cleveland in July.

That prospect makes his eyes light up, because he’s confident he will win a second round vote and take the nomination. In addition to what he thinks will be his bigger appeal in a two-way contest, Cruz thinks Trump is weak on execution, and he can exploit that weakness. One area is understanding the complex, arcane world of acquiring delegates, with rules that vary by state. Cruz has a well-oiled machine that knows how to play this “three-dimensional chess.”

The Cruz campaign’s skill at execution is a major reason to take his candidacy seriously. This includes the nuts and bolts of campaigning with maximum efficiency. He claims his campaign is twice as efficient—by efficient, he means what percentage of dollars are used on “voter content” rather than overhead—than the previous record of Obama’s 2012 campaign.

Trump’s reckless, coarse and often incoherent style—changing views on the fly and violating basic rules of decency—has also served to soften Cruz’s image and make him look more reasonable.

If winning the Republican nomination will be an arduous process, Cruz sees a smoother path in a general election contest against Hillary Clinton. If anything, the prospect of a national election seems to liberate him. A battle of ideas with a traditional and predictable candidate like Clinton seems more suited to his style than a battle with a loose cannon like Trump.

Cruz is a master debater who has a winning record of arguing cases in front of the Supreme Court. He knows how to frame and reframe issues to gain an advantage.

When confronted on his uncompromising pro-life view, he responds with sensitivity and uses language like “not taking it out on the baby.” He knows that when you speak with people who sharply disagree with you, tone and emphasis matter. I sensed a new, softer side of Cruz developing, one gearing himself to go for the big prize. 

He understands that he can’t win a majority of the vote if he’s perceived as an ideological extremist, so he pitches his policies in a way that has universal appeal– emphasizing words like jobs, freedom and security.

He knows he can't appeal to everybody, but he believes his policies will have enough crossover appeal to attract enough voters to win. He’ll tell African-Americans that his policies will bring them more jobs than Obama’s did. He’ll tell Latinos that a secure border is in their interest. He’ll tell Trump voters that his credentials for security are unmatched.

In short, Cruz is a smart politician who is trying to stay authentic to his values.

If he wins the Republican nomination, expect a candidate who will do everything he can not to come across as divisive. I got a sense that while he really believes his ideas are good for all of America, he also understands why others would see things differently. 

Near the end, he surprised the dinner guests by talking about “Cruz Democrats.” He quoted polling data (not clear if it was his own or others) that suggests he’s attracting a lot more Democrats than one would expect based on his hard-core conservative image.

As the cliché goes, he comes across as more personable in person than on television. I suppose this will be his major challenge—conveying a likeable and credible enough personality so people will trust that his ideas and leadership will indeed help America. 

Because he’s realistic about how great this challenge is, I wouldn’t count him out.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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