When Ted Cruz announced for president in March, many a pundit wondered out loud if he could be the next Barry Goldwater.
That is, could the hard-edged conservative Senator Cruz – like the late Senator Goldwater in 1964 – win the Republican presidential nomination, only to get crushed in the general election? With Cruz surging in the polls, second only to Donald Trump in the latest CNN poll of Republican voters, the question has added relevance.
Mr. Trump, too, has invited Goldwater comparisons of late, as he strengthens his lead atop the Republican field. Trump is a less apt analogy; he’s more populist than conservative, and his appeal is based more on his outsize persona rather than ideology. But the basic outline is the same: that the GOP could nominate someone unacceptable to moderates and swing voters, and the party gets crushed not only in the presidential race, but also in a lot of down-ballot races.
“Obviously, we all know from history that if you have a weak top of the ticket, that has a significant effect on the states, particularly the swing states,” Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona told reporters Wednesday at a Monitor breakfast. “I hate to refer to Barry Goldwater, who I loved and admired, but the fact is when Barry Goldwater lost, [Republicans] lost big-time.”
As with all historical analogies, this one is imperfect. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson had taken over for the slain President John F. Kennedy just a year earlier and was probably unbeatable, no matter whom the Republicans nominated. Today, there’s no incumbent in the race, and the Democrats’ likely nominee, Hillary Clinton, is hardly a lock to win next November.
In the context of 1964, when the moderate wing of the Republican Party was still strong, Goldwater was especially controversial. He opposed the Civil Rights Act and refused to disavow the extreme views of the John Birch Society, whose founder backed him.
Today, “the GOP establishment recoils from both Cruz and Trump as they have from no potential nominee either before – or after – Barry Goldwater,” says historian David Pietrusza in an e-mail. “They fear that both 2016 hopefuls hold the potential to alienate large swaths of general election voters.”
Cruz has battled his party’s leadership just as Goldwater did when he went after President Dwight Eisenhower's moderate brand of Republicanism, referring to a “dime-store New Deal.” Trump is sui generis, a brand unto himself – the billionaire showman – more than a party man.
But, Mr. Pietrusza adds, just as Goldwater was able to break into the Deep South, winning the electoral votes of five long-Democratic-held states, Trump and Cruz have even more potential to reach voters who have eluded recent GOP nominees.
“Trump's brash, frankly nationalist attitude appeals to certain segments of the blue-collar Democratic and independent vote,” Pietrusza says. “Cruz claims that his ‘bold colors’ approach will energize hitherto demoralized conservative voters to return to the polls.”
Cruz has wrapped his campaign around a conservative interpretation of the Constitution, and strong outreach to Evangelicals. He promises to eliminate five government agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, Department of Energy, and Department of Education. And like Goldwater, who was known for his gruff manner, Cruz has an intense, unflinching style that rubs many people the wrong way.
Cruz supporters, in fact, like the Goldwater comparison – though in their version, Cruz wins the election. Goldwater carried only six states, and lost the popular vote 61 percent to 39 percent. But his uncompromising conservatism gave hope to a new generation of like-minded Republicans, and it launched a movement that led ultimately to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Today, as much as Republican establishment figures are wringing their hands over the rise of Trump and Cruz, party regulars are increasingly unwilling to rule out the possibility that either could actually win the presidency.
At the very least, observers say, the chance of a Goldwater-esque wipeout is smaller than it was in 1964 – or 1972 or 1984, when Democratic nominees George McGovern and Walter Mondale lost all but one state plus the District of Columbia.
“The sorts of landslides that could occur four or five decades ago could probably not happen today,” writes Jonathan Chait in New York magazine. “Polarization has set a floor beneath both parties’ support.... The pool of persuadable voters has shrunk dramatically since , as the two parties have sorted themselves into hardened blocs with coherent worldviews.”
Senator McCain himself demonstrates why, in the end, Trump or Cruz could probably count on the votes of most party regulars. Though McCain – Goldwater’s successor in the Senate – has made his views of both Trump and Cruz clear, he promised Wednesday to support the Republican nominee, whoever it is. He put party loyalty above his personal views, including his rejection of Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric toward illegal immigrants.
“I obviously disagree with Mr. Trump on certain issues, but I think that fight can be had within the Republican Party,” McCain said. “I’ve had a strong disagreement, and I’ve made those disagreements well known. I have disagreements with Senator Cruz. I don’t believe we should shut down the government again. I have disagreements with some of the other candidates as well.... We have to see what happens, but I will support the nominee of the Republican Party.”
It’s possible that in the embrace of party loyalists like McCain, Trump or Cruz could look acceptable to a wider swath of the general electorate than either does now – particularly when the race is seen as a choice (presumably against Mrs. Clinton) rather than an up-or-down vote on one man.
But even if Trump or Cruz gets the nomination and loses, either of them would change the Republican Party, as Goldwater did.
“After Goldwater, [Richard] Nixon triumphed because he was able to co-opt many conservative pet causes and make them more palatable to mainstream Americans,” writes Jeet Heer, a senior editor at the New Republic.
If Trump wins the nomination and then loses, Mr. Heer continues, “the stage will be set for a new Nixon – most likely Cruz or [Marco] Rubio – to become the more polished Trump and win the White House.”