With catastrophically unpopular bloviating demagogue Donald Trump currently engaged in a prolonged fight with conservatism’s would-be savior, Ted Cruz, much has been made of the fact that Cruz himself has a likability gap. Indeed, the RCP Average of Cruz’s favorable/unfavorable split currently has him roughly 21 points underwater; and, anecdotally, I can barely go by a day as a de facto Cruz campaign surrogate without being reminded by both Republicans and Independents of how purportedly “unlikable” Cruz is. It doesn’t help that prominent left-wing pundits like Dana Milbank write columns entitled “The Utter Nastiness of Ted Cruz,” and that even moderate right-of-center pundits like Jennifer Rubin finally make amends with a Cruz candidacy literally because of his alleged unlikability.
I am a longtime fan of Cruz’s, and have supported his presidential bid effectively since launch. On the evening of February 1, I was tremendously honored to be thanked by Cruz himself in his Iowa Caucuses victory speech for having volunteered in Iowa. Hopefully, this makes it more meaningful when I say I think the Cruz campaign needs to double down on its efforts to overcome this likability deficit, which is an unnecessary albatross around the neck of the campaign’s existential fight versus Trump.
One thing that Erick has often noted about Marco Rubio is that Rubio, on the campaign trail, would invariably rather talk about football or West Coast rap music than about politics — not because Rubio is a policy lightweight, that is, but because he is a smooth and naturally relatable politician. Regardless of whether or not this is a sound tactic (and I do think Erick thinks it is), I wish Cruz would spend more time on the campaign trail talking about non-political issues.
Everyone knows that Cruz, the former clerk to conservative U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Tea Party icon, is a philosophically well-grounded and highly principled stalwart. What fewer people probably know is how much Cruz loves playing iPhone games — or is, as the Daily Beast called him, “a secret video game addict.” Fewer people probably know that he does hilarious Simpsons impressions, or that he’s pretty much obsessed with the movie, The Princess Bride. Fewer people probably know that Cruz at least used to be, and may still be, an avid poker player; friends of mine say that when he used to tour on the Federalist Society speaking circuit, he would play friendly poker games until the wee hours of the morning.
One other thing that I have noticed about Cruz is how much better he is in one-on-one and town hall settings than he is when delivering a prepared stump speech. When I’ve seen him on the trail, I’ve always been struck by how much more personable and engaging he is in Q&A than when delivering prepared remarks. Since town hall formats amount to just extended Q&A, he excels in this setting. He was absolutely phenomenal on Anderson Cooper’s CNN town hall just last night:
One more thing that stands out about the CNN town hall, in addition to Ted’s strong individual performance, is just how wonderful a family he has. What is there to say about Heidi Cruz that hasn’t already been said? She is an amazingly bright, eloquent, charming woman, and just an incredible asset for the Cruz campaign. She is devoted to her husband, and Ted is devoted to her. His daughters, Caroline and Catherine, are immensely likable, as we saw as far back as the first Fox News debate last August. Caroline is outgoing and witty, and I know America loved to hear last night that the girls would invite Taylor Swift as their first dinner guest at the White House. The Cruz campaign had a particularly nasty experience last December with the Washington Post, involving his daughters, so I understand that they should be used sparingly. But, still — what a great asset to have.
I have full faith and confidence in the Cruz campaign, which thus far has frankly just been a top-notch operation at every conceivable level. They truly dot all the proverbial i’s and cross all the proverbial t’s. But I think doubling down on their efforts to help the candidate’s likability deficit is an important area on which to focus. More late-night TV interviews with Jimmy Kimmel and the like would be great. Let’s hear a little more about those iPhone games, and hear more from Heidi. Substantively, let’s hear more of an emphasis on optimistic “opportunity conservatism” messaging — of rising tides and lifting boats.
Given how appallingly unlikable the competition (Trump) is, this is a meta-battle that can very much be won.