Ted Cruz isn't messing around. Donald Trump is probably going to come up just short of the number of delegates to win the Republican nomination on the first ballot — and it's mostly Cruz's fault.
Cruz and his campaign team have been working the delegate selection system hard, and grabbing delegates wherever they can find them. From the beginning of the campaign, his outfit has shown itself to be one of the most-savvy, technologically well-equipped, and hardest working units in politics today. It is as if his campaign is saying, "Sure, Donald Trump may end up with more votes by the end, but we will have the delegates, the institutional support, the donor support, and the working knowledge to run a national campaign. Trump won't."
Conservatives have noticed. Trump is complaining about a system that is rigged, but conservatives look at the Cruz campaign working the system and think it competent, not crooked. When Trump fails on the first ballot in Cleveland, many will argue that Cruz is the obvious choice.
But conservatives shouldn't kid themselves about Cruz. Yes, he respects conservative institutions and competently sings the dearest lines from its standard songbook in a way that Trump can't. Yes, Cruz wants the presidency so badly that even television viewers can feel the humidity rising from his flop sweat. Yes, he is working for it as if he is the chairman of his personal Make a Wish Foundation. But like Trump, Cruz would be a shockingly unpopular pick in a post-Goldwater national election. Although not as badly as Trump, Cruz generally repulses women, according to all polls. Republicans can't do well in a general election unless they win — and win big — among married women.
Compared to Trump, Cruz may look like a normal Republican, sure. But the mainstream of the party and the big wallets of the donor class are never going to support Cruz in the same way that they've supported Mitt Romney, John McCain, and George W. Bush before. Yes, they may come around to endorsing him. Some elected officials may even campaign for him, but if Cruz is the nominee, they're going to be thinking about how to save their own seats and the year 2020.
And yes, even Lindsey Graham, who used to joke in an unsettling way about murdering Cruz, has come around to stumping for him. But I agree with Graham's original diagnosis: "If you're a Republican and your choices are Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in the general election," Graham said, "it's the difference between being poisoned or shot. You're still dead." In your heart, you know that Graham still thinks this way.
Ted Cruz doesn't have any way of reaching independent and persuadable Democratic voters. It's important to point out that part of Cruz's unpopularity is his ideological conservatism. Successful national Republicans usually have a few "heresies" to advert to the center. The Bushes portrayed themselves as compassionate conservatives and triangulated on issues like education. McCain made himself a scourge of the corruption of money in politics, even when it brought him into conflict with typical conservative views on free speech. Romney was a businessman and technocrat, not merely a creature of politics. By contrast, Cruz is a man who seems to have received his entire political formation within the ideological hothouse of the conservative movement.
Cruz's "disagreements" with the party at large tend to be about tactics. He's for the extreme ones. Or they are hedges between different competing schools of thought within conservatism. He is willing to split the difference between neoconservative interventionists and conservative Jacksonians on issues of foreign policy. But this never, ever dulls the sharp edges of his partisanship.
Conservatives should be wary of having Cruz as their candidate precisely because he offers such a high-octane distillation of their views. As it would be for any movement promoting its ideas at their rawest state, an up or down vote for "conservatism" is a losing one for Republicans. That's why the party historically tries not to nominate people like Ted Cruz.
And as hard as Ted Cruz works, he is simply not all that sympathetic a figure. He has an unsettling smile. He speaks in a very peculiar patois that sets much of the nation to instantly hold on tighter to their wallets for fear of being suckered. He may save the conservative movement from a reckoning that a Trump nomination will bring, but he is not much more likely to win the general election or save the Republican Party from its electoral demise.