Thursday, April 28, 2016

Ranting On...Cruz/Fiorina and the Art of the Hail Mary

So, that was interesting, wasn't it?  Yes, yesterday another bizarre chapter in one of the strangest presidential elections in American history unfolded when Sen. Ted Cruz announced his running mate would be Carly Fiorina, a woman who dropped out months ago from the Republican primaries.  Never mind that Cruz has been mathematically eliminated from winning the GOP nomination on the first ballot.  Never mind that he is not the frontrunner, and it's been forty years since a candidate named their running mate despite being in second place for the nomination.  And never mind that between the two of them, they have less elected experience than any presidential ticket in eighty years.  It was one of the most bizarre moments of the election, with Cruz choosing Fiorina the morning after he got walloped by Donald Trump.  It's worth trying to decipher just went into this political calculation, what it could mean for the race (not to mention Cruz and Fiorina in general), and whether or not, like all such radical moves, it will pay off.

It's worth noting that Ted Cruz needed to do something to change the conversation.  The terrible thing about being the underdog in a political fight is that the burden of proof is always on your back.  Donald Trump can have a poor night in Wisconsin, say, but he still has plenty of delegates, contests, and voters to fall back upon-he's still winning.  It's the unique thing about the presidential primary that isn't mirrored in any other contest-in regular primaries or general elections, you have one bad election and then you lose, but the primaries are long, drawn-out affairs that don't have a redo button, and that's what Ted Cruz has been in desperate need of for months-a way to frame the election in such a way that it's just he and Donald Trump versus each other, and "can we go back to the South for a bit with just the two of us in competition?"  Short of a scandal (and it'd have to be a doozy considering how teflon Trump has been this cycle), this was one of the few guaranteed aces that Cruz had left to play-picking someone to be his running mate was a bold move, guaranteed to gain tons of press, thought pieces, and perhaps even get some new voters (read: Republican women) to reconsider him as he tries to find as many delegates as he can to score a second ballot victory.

The problem for Cruz here is that this is a "Hail Mary" pass that has been thrown before and never really connected.  The reality is that vice presidential picks are, at best, a wash.  It's nearly unheard of in modern political history for a running mate to actually swing an election for the better.  Your best case scenario is someone like Walter Mondale, George HW Bush, or Al Gore-some random politician who will be able to help you with Congress and running the country, and who does well enough in vice presidential debates and doesn't embarrass you-someone who will be good as the actual vice president and won't hurt the campaign.  If you're really lucky they might give you a few points in their home state.  However by-and-large running mates don't matter.  Picking Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin hardly helped Mondale or John McCain gain more votes from women.  Naming Lloyd Bentsen made Michael Dukakis' lack of experience even more pronounced, not less.  Richard Schweiker hardly assuaged Republicans that Ronald Reagan was too conservative to win in 1976, and picking a mill worker's son didn't make John Kerry seem any less insanely privileged.  The reality is that, as much as we want to convince ourselves that we consider a VP when we vote in the White House (after all, fourteen vice presidents have gone on to take the Oath themselves-that means 32% of all presidents have been the veep), we don't.  It's the president or their party that drive us to (or away from) the polls-not the running mate.

So why did Cruz do this?  It's because he didn't have a choice.  If Trump gains the momentum headed into Indiana and California, it doesn't take a political scientist to realize that Cruz is screwed.  Even if Trump can't hit 1237, the pressure on the GOP will be too enormous not to give him the nomination or risk a mass exodus of loyal voters.  The GOP has been in a damned if they do, damned if they don't situation for months (it's worth noting that Ted Cruz has been their white knight for weeks now, and no one in Washington likes him), and it's time to pay the piper.  Cruz can change the conversation with Fiorina as his running mate.  After all, for all her deficits she's a compelling speaker, great in a debate fight, and one of the only Republicans this entire primary process who actually got the better of Trump. It's also worth noting that with Trump running a 22-point gap behind where Mitt Romney ended up with white female voters in 2012, that there's room for Cruz to grow amongst conservative women.  Identity politics isn't a reliable indicator of people's voting preferences, but it's not nil.

It's worth noting that this is probably the best scenario for Fiorina, and so it's easy to see why she was willing to take such long odds when most other politicians would have balked (despite what he'll surely say, she wasn't even close to his first choice as a running mate, and wouldn't have been picked if he was in the same position as Donald Trump).  I couldn't help but think of Merrick Garland, who took on a similarly quixotic task earlier this year when he accepted President Obama's nomination to the Supreme Court despite knowing that the GOP would stop at nothing to keep him from taking the seat.  Garland was chosen not only because he's a moderate, but because most other candidates knew that they might have a chance in the Clinton administration-due to his political views and age, Garland's only shot at achieving his lifelong dream was to play 100-1 odds and hope for the best.

Fiorina is in a similar situation.  She lost a bid for the Senate in 2010 by a landslide, despite the Republican wave that year.  Her presidential bid got good press, but the man she cut down ended up being the likely nominee for the White House.  Her performance wasn't good enough to wait until 2020 or even longer if Trump won, and running in another state other than California would look too opportunistic.  Like other justices in Garland's case, more obvious Republican women such as Nikki Haley, Susana Martinez, and Mary Fallin are going to wait for either Trump or 2020 before they make a move in the presidential race.  As a result, Fiorina took the plunge.  While Cruz will now have a moment to try and upstage Trump, and he'll have two ways to get through the frontrunner's media grip, he has sacrificed a powerful bartering tool headed to the convention-Marco Rubio or John Kasich may look a lot more appealing when Cruz is trying to negotiate with delegates who wanted one of them more.  There's a ton of room for buyer's remorse here.

Ultimately, like Merrick Garland's Supreme Court nomination, the odds are far more in favor of footnote than miracle.  Ronald Reagan tried this same move in 1976 and it didn't work, relegating Richard Schweiker to obscurity and not the Eisenhower Building.  Cruz would need a miracle in the coming weeks, both in terms of momentum and Trump staying far enough away from 1237 that a second ballot is assured...and then he would need to win that second ballot over more "established" establishment politicians like John Kasich and Mitt Romney who smell blood in the water.  That's an extraordinary order, bordering on the impossible, but it's called a "Hail Mary" for a reason.  You have to just throw the ball and pray for the best.  Whether or not it works for Cruz and Fiorina, we'll see in the coming weeks.

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