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October 18, 2013 1:02 PM Why We Have Campaigns

By Jonathan Bernstein

Alex Roarty called Ted Cruz the 2016 Republican “frontrunner” today:

The Republican establishment despises Ted Cruz. And that’s great news for the senator from Texas: It’s the most prominent sign that he’s the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination.

He also gets one good quote from Iowa conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats: “I really believe if the Iowa caucuses were held today, I don’t even think it’d be close. Ted Cruz would walk away with it.”

But here’s the thing: it’s not just a quirk of timing that the Iowa caucuses aren’t being held today. What it means is that we’re only at the beginning of a very long campaign.

And campaigns matter. Even general election campaigns matter; what they mainly do is remind people which party they belong to, and inform them that the nominee of that party is a perfectly acceptable representative of that party. That’s a big party of why if you ask before the campaign you’ll find all sorts of people ready to jump to a third party candidate, or in some circumstances even cross over to vote for the other party’s candidate, but by November most people are back where they “belong.”

In primary elections, the information environment is more complicated, because there are fewer obvious cues. Tail Gunner Ted is taking advantage of one of those cues right now — he’s been the most visible, recently, of the radical Republicans, so those who basically look for the representative of that strain of the party are moving to him.

Whether that lasts, however, is another story, as Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain could tell you.

What’s going to happen is that Iowa voters will learn more about the various candidates. Recently they’ve had more exposure to Cruz; later, all the fully-funded candidates will get their own messages out. And, meanwhile, the press coverage will increase, both in the neutral press and the GOP-aligned media. And here’s the thing: to the extent that GOP opinion leaders either hate Ted Cruz or, now, think that Ted Cruz is a loser, that’s going to show up on the coverage that Cruz gets. Sure, not in all the coverage; there were, I’m sure, plenty of conservative blogs that were with Bachmann or Cain (or the Newtster for that matter) to the bitter end). But clearly enough to get the proper cues to a sufficient number of primary and caucus goers that they figured out: hey, that’s not our candidate.

To the extent that those future negative cues are already baked in — and I’m fairly confident that’s the case for Ted Cruz — no, he’s not the frontrunner. Not at all.

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.

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