Cruz 2020?

Recent history says the GOP won’t learn its lesson next time around.

trump cruz.
Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz talk during a Republican primary debate on March 10 in Coral Gables, Florida.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Donald Trump is halfway to the Republican presidential nomination. Sen. Ted Cruz is the only rival who can catch him. Many Republicans think either candidate would be a disastrous nominee, but they aren’t sure which is worse. Trump is volatile and incendiary. Cruz is dogmatic and abrasive. Choosing between them, in the words of Sen. Lindsey Graham, is like choosing between “being shot or poisoned.”

The good news, these Republicans figure, is that neither injury would be fatal. With Trump or Cruz at the top of the ticket, 2016 will be a bad year. But the loss will sober Republican voters. They’ll learn that rejecting the establishment candidate, and nominating an angry outsider or a zealot instead, just surrenders more votes and more power to the Democrats. The GOP’s fever will break, and in 2020 Republicans will choose a more mainstream candidate.

It’s a comforting story, and it sounds plausible no matter which man, Trump or Cruz, is the nominee. But what if it’s both? What if Trump wins the nomination this year, and Cruz wins it in 2020? As things stand, that’s exactly what’s likely to happen. First the GOP will be poisoned. Then it will be shot.

In the past 30 years, Republicans have held six presidential nomination fights that were truly open—that is, primaries that didn’t include a sitting president. Five of those six races were won by the candidate who came in second in the previous open contest. Ronald Reagan lost the 1976 nomination to Gerald Ford and returned as the nominee in 1980. George H.W. Bush, who lost in 1980 to Reagan, became Reagan’s vice president and won the next open nomination fight in 1988. Bob Dole lost the 1988 battle to Bush and won the next open race in 1996. John McCain lost to George W. Bush in 2000 and won the next open contest in 2008. Mitt Romney lost to McCain in 2008 and became the nominee in 2012.

The only exception during this stretch was Pat Buchanan, who came in second in 1996 and switched to the Reform Party in 1999. This year will be another exception: former Sen. Rick Santorum, who came in second in 2012, fizzled this time and won’t be the nominee. But neither of those candidates performed nearly as well as Cruz has this year. In 1996, according to the Associated Press, Buchanan won only 145 delegates. In 2012, Santorum won 245 delegates. Cruz already has about 400 delegates, and we’re only halfway through.

Cruz has an impressive money machine. By the end of January, he had raised $54 million, about $20 million more than Trump, Jeb Bush, or Sen. Marco Rubio. Pro-Cruz super PACs had raised another $50 million. Last month, Cruz reported an additional $12 million. That gives him about three times as much money as Buchanan and Santorum raised in their entire campaigns. And Cruz has built a far more extensive network than they did, with well-organized field operations in every state. He has a powerful constituency on the religious right and a second base in the Tea Party. He would start 2020 with the same advantages, if not more.

The argument against Cruz is that he’s obnoxious. His colleagues don’t like him, and exit polls show he doesn’t do nearly as well among moderate and somewhat conservative voters as he does among hardcore conservatives. Rubio strikes most people as the more attractive candidate. That’s why, when my colleague Jamelle Bouie was betting on Cruz, I put my money on Rubio. Four months later, I stand refuted. Cruz hasn’t overcome the Trump wave, but he has proved that in an angry party, his organization, discipline, and message can beat a broadly appealing rival.

Republicans who vote for Trump in 2016, only to see him abandoned by elements of their party and defeated in the general election, would be at least as angry in 2020. The notion that his loss would teach them not to support Cruz has two glaring flaws. One flaw is that the desertion of Trump by the GOP establishment, or at least part of it, would confound the equation. A Trump rout wouldn’t prove that Republicans are better off nominating a candidate like George W. Bush, because the right would be able to point to a difference between 2000 and 2016: the establishment’s betrayal of Trump.

The other problem is that Cruz isn’t Trump. Trump’s conservatism is visceral and stylistic. He’s more interested in waterboarding, cracking down on China and Mexico, and beating the hell out of ISIS and protesters than he is in free-market orthodoxy. Cruz’s conservatism is ideological. He cares about tax cuts, deregulation, and social-issue litmus tests. Many of Cruz’s supporters see Trump as a left-leaning apostate. If Trump loses the general election, they won’t conclude that their brand of conservatism has been refuted. They’ll conclude, with some justice, that their brand of conservatism hasn’t been tried.

Cruz has been making this argument for months. In speeches, debates, interviews, and ads, he has painted Trump as a donor to liberals, a socialist on health care, and a squish on Planned Parenthood. Presumably, Cruz will hammer these differences all the way to the convention. And then, if Trump loses the election, Cruz will take up where he left off. He’ll raise more money, build out his field organization, and lock up support in the Tea Party and on the religious right. He’ll tell hardline Republican audiences what they want to hear: that Trump lost because he wasn’t a “consistent conservative.” That’s a tired excuse for every Republican defeat. But it’s an accurate description of Trump.

In that scenario, four years from now, the GOP will be facing President Hillary Clinton. Democrats will be trying to win their fourth consecutive presidential election, a feat no party has accomplished since 1948. Voters will be restless. There could be a recession, an unpopular war, or a catastrophic terror attack. The last time a party held the White House for 12 years, the opposition party—the Democrats—wised up. They nominated an attractive centrist: Bill Clinton. Unlike Walter Mondale, Clinton wasn’t steeped in liberal orthodoxy. Unlike Michael Dukakis, he understood conservative cultural anxieties. And unlike Trump and Cruz, he was more interested in collaboration than in conflict. All of these differences contributed to his election and his presidency.

Eventually, Republicans will learn the same lesson. But they haven’t learned it yet, and it’s not clear that they’ll get the message even if Trump leads them to a landslide defeat. Losing a fourth straight election to the Democrats, and a fourth to the Clintons in three decades, would be difficult. But Cruz, with his sanctimony and his hard-right agenda, might be up to the job.

That would be a cruel fate for Lindsey Graham. On Thursday, Graham endorsed Cruz, calling Trump “a disaster for our party.” It gets worse, Lindsey. There are two disasters, and you can have both. 

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Republican primary.