When Ted Cruz announced his run for the presidency, the big question was whether he had only a small chance to win or no chance at all. Since then, a lot has gone right for him.
Mr. Cruz still does not enjoy an easy road to the Republican nomination, not by any means. But it is a testament to just how strange this year has been that a candidate like him, who is despised by many of his own Republican colleagues in the Senate, now has a plausible path to the Republican nomination.
Some of his opportunity is the result of his own strength. He has succeeded in building a robust campaign organization, buoyed by fund-raising tallies of the sort we generally haven’t seen from anti-establishment, conservative candidates. Fund-raising isn’t everything, but it’s a big part of why candidates like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum have not been serious contenders this time.
A lot of Mr. Cruz’s opening, however, reflects the weakness of his rivals, not his strength. Few would have guessed, for instance, that his solid but hardly astonishing $26 million in official campaign contributions (not counting outside groups) would be more than Jeb Bush’s total. By comparison, George W. Bush raised more than both candidates combined by this point 16 years ago (when a dollar was worth more). Back in the summer, I certainly would not have guessed that the combined support for Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker — Mr. Walker is now out of the race — would add up to just 16 percent in national polls, with three months to go before Iowa.
The candidates who are faring well in the polls — Ben Carson and Donald Trump — are also good news for Mr. Cruz. In just about any other year, Mr. Cruz would be the worst-case scenario for the party’s establishment. But compared with the likes of Mr. Trump and Mr. Carson, he seems reasonable and conventional. That might let him become a candidate the party could grudgingly accept. His debate performances, especially the one last week, have only helped in this regard.
Mr. Cruz hasn’t been faring particularly well in the polls, but there is a path forward. Even when he seemed to have little or no chance nationally, it was still clear that he could do well in Iowa, a state where nearly half of the Republican electorate is “very conservative,” according to the exit polls. He doesn’t lead there now, but the caucus is still three months off, and he has a large and untapped war chest. Mr. Trump and Mr. Carson might fade, which could help if a disproportionate share of their anti-establishment support goes his way.
If Mr. Cruz finishes well in Iowa, it won’t be hard to envision a serious run for the nomination. He could follow up a win in Iowa with strength in South Carolina and particularly Nevada, another caucus state where half of the G.O.P. electorate is “very conservative.” Soon after come the predominantly Southern states on Super Tuesday, where very conservative voters represent a larger share of the primary electorate than any other region of the country.
If Mr. Cruz is the only elected official who amasses many delegates by that point — which seems plausible — he will be in a good position to outmuscle relatively weak establishment candidates, particularly if those candidates prove to have fairly narrow appeal themselves, like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie or John Kasich.
For instance, if Mr. Cruz had run in 2012 and run with this strength, he might have had a real shot at defeating Mitt Romney, who struggled against underfunded opposition because of protracted resistance from the religious right. Of course, Mr. Cruz would ultimately need to broaden his appeal beyond his base of “very conservative” voters in the face of considerable resistance from party elites, hardly a sure thing, especially if Mr. Rubio continues to consolidate their support.
But in recent weeks, it has almost become a cliché to suggest that Mr. Cruz is going to win the “grass-roots” half of the G.O.P. primary once Ben Carson and Donald Trump fade, and that Mr. Cruz will then have a real shot to win.
This theory assumes, though, that Mr. Cruz could become the sole candidate of the right. Mr. Carson and Mr. Trump aren’t at all assured to fade. Even if they did, there isn’t much reason to think Mr. Cruz would gain the preponderance of their support.
The conservative wing of the G.O.P. is deceptively diverse, and the appeal of Mr. Carson and Mr. Trump comes from a lot more than their adherence to conservative doctrine. Their appeal is in part about identity politics, and they often draw from wings of the conservative base — populist, anti-immigrant, the religious right — that aren’t always unbending or ideological on other issues.
Mr. Cruz is different. He draws from voters motivated by ideology more than identity. Mr. Carson and Mr. Trump, for instance, tend to win at least 20 percent of self-identified moderate voters, but Mr. Cruz had the support of just 1 percent of moderate voters in a recent Iowa poll.
The diverse support of the various outsider candidates makes it tough to assume that supporters of Mr. Trump or Mr. Carson would shift to Mr. Cruz en masse. There’s little evidence that he’s their second choice. As two Yale professors wrote last week, there is even data that a sizable share of people favoring Mr. Trump or Mr. Carson have Mr. Bush or Mr. Rubio as their second choice.
The diversity of the G.O.P. base also helps explain how anti-establishment candidates like Mr. Carson, Mr. Cruz and Mr. Trump have all coexisted in drawing their support, how Mr. Carson has surged to the top of the polls without detracting much from Mr. Trump’s share of the vote, or how both have risen without any decline in Mr. Cruz’s support. And it makes it easier to imagine how the three could survive into Super Tuesday and beyond, sustained by unusually strong name recognition, considerable resources and distinct bases of support.