Can Texas Sen. Ted Cruz win over libertarian-minded voters? He's currently leading polls of Republican voters in Iowa but is stuck in third place behind Donald Trump and Marco Rubio in New Hampshire. Nationally, he trails Trump by 20 percentage points.
A Tea Party favorite, Cruz is also sometimes called libertarian or libertarian leaning. But is he really in favor of "Free Minds and Free Markets" in the same way that the modal Reason.com reader is? Not all all.
In my latest Daily Beast column, I talk about the distance between Cruz's brand of conservatism and libertarianism and suggest what he—and Republicans more generally—will need to do in order to win over libertarians. And let's be clear: Republicans can't win the White House without the "Libertarian Vote" (more on that below). From the col:
On a recent episode of Red Eye with Tom Shillue, guest Alan Dershowitz opined that Ted Cruz, whom he taught at Harvard Law back in the day, was very "libertarian." That's news to me and it's news to Rand Paul, the most libertarian-leaning contender for the GOP presidential nod, who tweeted the following New Year's resolution: "I resolve to give @TedCruz more lead time before I announce my policy positions, so he can replicate them faster."
Indeed, to most libertarians I know, Cruz comes across as a conservative pretty much straight out of Central Casting—the retro-wet-look hair even invokes the late, unlamented Sen. Joe McCarthy. Sure, he peppers his conversations with references to Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, two "Austrian School" economists important to libertarians, and he genuflects regularly in the direction of cutting the size, scope, and spending of government (one loose definition of libertarian politics). That is, unless you're talking about defense spending, which can always be jacked up even without paying for any increases….
David Boaz of The Cato Institute argues that Cruz is a federalist, though not a particularly consistent one.
The state's rights positions Cruz typically takes are not libertarian, David Boaztold me in a recent interview. "A firm federalist would push for the repeal of federal drug laws," said Boaz, the executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of last year's The Libertarian Mind. "Cruz doesn't do that." Cruz also believes the federal government should govern abortion, which makes you wonder why he thinks gay marriage should be left up to the states.
That said, there's overlap on some issues that might provide common ground between Cruz and libertarians. Cruz has recently "evolved" on marijuana and, after attacking President Obama for failing to enforce federal law in Colorado and Washington, now says he's open to the states experimenting with legalized pot.
Boaz rightly observed to me that Cruz turns off libertarians "with his heavy emphasis on evangelical issues" such as gay marriage and abortion. The apocalyptic extremity of his rhetoric is off-putting even beyond its content and there's a strong case that Cruz has blown up any possible of rapprochment with libertarian voters.
And yet Cruz and Republicans will need libertarian voters in November if they want to take the White House. Work by Boaz and his Cato colleague David Kirby shows that at least 15 percent of the electorate is reliably libertarian (that is, it trends fiscally conservative and socially liberal). That's enough to swing any national election, but Republicans have alienated libertarians because of their social conservatism and their inability to rein in spending even when they controlled the government.
The Republicans have only won a majority of the popular vote once since 1988. If Cruz and other Republicans think they can take the White House by appealing to a shrinking number of social conservatives, they will yet again lose in 2016. The question is whether they will jettison or moderate their culture-warrior issues and actually (finally!) make good on their oft-repeated promises to cut the size, scope, and spending of government.