To many, Ted Cruz’s recent announcement of Carly Fiorina as his running mate seemed puzzling in the extreme. Why would someone select a Vice Presidential nominee when they haven’t yet won the nomination? Why would they do this when, according to all the numbers, they’re about to lose that nomination badly? Do people who lose get running mates? What could be the purpose of such an act?
Certainly, there were explanations for why Cruz would select Fiorina in particular as a running mate. Cruz would like to capitalize on Donald Trump’s unpopularity with women, and blunt the significance of Hillary Clinton’s gender in the general election. Right-leaning women could vote for Cruz over Clinton, confident that voting for a conservative did not entail having to hurt the national advancement of female politicians.
But while there are plausible political reasons for having Fiorina as a Vice Presidential nominee, these explanations fail to answer the fundamental question, which is what a campaign that has just lost the Republican nomination is doing taking a step that is only relevant for general election candidates.
Make no mistake: Cruz has lost. He’s been mathematically eliminated from winning the nomination outright. His delegate gap against Trump is vast; Trump already has 81% of the delegates he needs to reach the nomination. Thanks to his recent devastating sweep of the Northeastern states, Trump can even afford major losses and still reach the nomination. Cruz needs many more delegates than there are delegates available. When it comes to the Republican nomination, Cruz is toast. (The prediction markets have his chances of being nominated at slightly this side of bupkis.)
So why has Cruz just unveiled a new logo and announced a running mate? Pundits have professed themselves baffled; after all, even if Fiorina could pick off some female Republicans here and there, and help somewhat with California, the dynamics of the race will remain fundamentally unchanged. The consensus seems to be that this is an act of desperation by Cruz, a Hail Mary pass with zero chance of success. Jim Newell of Slate confidently announced that he expects “pulling a Cruz” to become a synonym for delusional political gambles. After all, Newell says, this move is “unfathomable.”
But Ted Cruz, while he may be Lucifer in the flesh, is not a total strategic dunce. His intelligence may frequently be overpraised, but the likelihood is small that Cruz has simply made some wild flailing maneuver of no conceivable purpose. It may be satisfying for those of us who detest Cruz to think he has suddenly lost his mind, and that we can all point and laugh at his desperation. But in writing the Fiorina selection off as the irrational spasm of a campaign in its death throes, we may be wishfully overlooking a far more sensible explanation for the act: Cruz has simply announced his intention to run in the general election, Republican nomination or not.
For some reason, Cruz’s behavior hasn’t been interpreted this way, perhaps because the idea of him continuing to run after losing the nomination is somehow inconceivable. But when the situation is examined carefully, it makes perfect sense for Cruz to run as an independent. It serves Cruz’s aspirations and fits with his character, and more importantly, carries no real downsides.
First, there is no reason for Cruz not to continue to run. The main reason why a losing primary candidate wouldn’t run as an independent in the general election is party unity: an independent splits the party’s votes, thereby damaging its chances. This is why Bernie Sanders is very unlikely to run in the general election if Hillary Clinton gets the Democratic nomination. Whatever the internal differences in a primary may be, they can be set aside when a party needs to come together to win the office.
In Cruz’s case, however, there’s no reason for him to care at all about damaging the Republican nominee’s chances. First, the Republican nominee is going to be Donald Trump, who isn’t really a Republican at all, and who conservatives have been urgently trying to stop. Second, Cruz has zero loyalty to the Republican Party itself, whose leaders detest him and whom he detests equally in turn.
In fact, Cruz doesn’t even really care about “Republican” as a label to begin with. This fact becomes starkly evident in his autobiography, in which he spends page after page distancing himself from the party, proudly proclaiming his willingness to stand with conservative principles and the American people against “the duplicity of the Republican establishment.” Cruz has never shown the slightest interest cultivating good relations with the party, and it’s unlikely that he would now set aside his personal ambitions so that he could help get a president with an “R” after his name. It’s not as if Cruz’s relationship with Republicans could get much worse, or as if hurting Trump does damage to the conservative cause.
The main reason to be skeptical that Cruz will run in the general election is that he would have little chance of winning. He wouldn’t be on the ballot in a number of states, and Cruz’s narrow base of hardcore conservatives are hardly sufficient to give him any shot at success. If Ted Cruz is a man who hungers for political power and victory, this sure doesn’t seem the way to go about it.
But this kind of thinking both misunderstands the nature of Cruz’s motivations and ignores the long-term benefits of the strategy. First, despite appearances, Cruz is not necessarily concerned with the pursuit of immediate political gain. A man who wants to become a traditional power broker does not begin his Senate carer by pissing off every one of his natural allies. A Senator does not gain political influence by alienating himself from his colleagues so much that they not only refuse to work with him, but joke about murdering him. Ted Cruz has intentionally avoided the pursuit of traditional political dominance in the Senate. He is a kamikaze conservative, perfectly willing to destroy opportunities for favor and influence; the government shutdown saga demonstrated definitively that Ted Cruz is a man who does not have any qualms about undertaking doomed efforts if they suit him.
This may, of course, be because Ted Cruz will sacrifice strategic goals for ideological purity. But there is another sense in which Cruz’s actions make long-term political sense. He won’t win the Presidency as an independent, it’s true. But he wouldn’t have won it as a Republican, either. And an independent candidacy puts Cruz in a very comfortable position: as the Republican party collapses, having nominated Trump, Cruz can position himself as the man who stood up for traditional conservative principles while the Republicans ran around with their heads cut off. This is, in fact, precisely how Cruz has positioned himself since arriving in the Senate: as the independent outsider who remained faithful to the conservative creed even as the Republican Party betrayed it. Cruz will get to stand on a debate stage next to Clinton and Trump and claim to speak for the American right, “ensuring a meaningful conservative alternative” in the race. He may even believe that his running will mitigate some of the damage done to conservatives in congressional races by having Trump as the face of the right.
An independent run presents an excellent opportunity for Cruz to seize the mantle of American conservatism from the Republican establishment that he hates. It would bolster Cruz’s national status, and set him up as exactly what he wants to be: the recognized leader of the American right wing.
From Cruz’s perspective, there is no downside whatsoever to continuing to run even after losing the Republican nomination. Bear in mind what the alternative for Cruz is here: to sacrifice the spotlight, to gracefully cede the race and watch Clinton/Trump from the sidelines. To go away quietly. Does this fit with his character? Why would he do it, anyway? Why wouldn’t he run as an independent? If all goes well, a new conservative movement will rise from the ashes of the Republican Party, with Ted Cruz as its head. As the party itself falls apart, Cruz will establish himself as the de facto national spokesman American conservatism. Given the option to either do that or withdraw, who would withdraw?
With some appealing potential advantages, and zero real disadvantages, the choice seems clear, and announcing Fiorina suddenly makes perfect sense. Ted Cruz may be running in the general election, nomination or not.