The operating assumption for political observers going into the 2016 election has been that Sen. Ted Cruz doesn't stand a chance to win a general election. But now that the odds have increased of him actually being the Republican nominee, it's worth revisiting that assumption.
There are no doubt a number of good arguments as to why Cruz would be too polarizing to win a general election, particularly given how the nation's demographic trends favor Democrats. There's a reason why the smart money would be betting against him. But let's entertain an alternate possibility.
To start, of all the Republicans, Cruz is currently in the best position to unite his own party. A good way to think of the party right now is that there are three basic factions.
One is comprised of anti-establishment ideological conservatives who back Cruz, another is made up of anti-establishment populists who support Trump and the other is filled with establishment Republicans who are hoping they can somehow nominate Ohio Gov. John Kasich or some other candidate who seems safer in a general election.
The problem is that if the party nominates somebody other than Donald Trump or Cruz, it would trigger a furious backlash from both anti-establishment factions, who make up an overwhelming majority of those who have actually cast votes in GOP primaries and caucuses. If Trump is the nominee, he alienates a good chunk of ideological conservatives and establishment Republicans.
Cruz, on the other hand, will have an argument to make to both groups of anti-establishment voters, and the remaining group that despises him the most — establishment Republicans — are the most pragmatic, least ideological and most likely to fall in line behind the eventual nominee.
Moving on to the general election, there is the matter of Hillary Clinton. Trump's staggeringly bad polling and the general circus on the GOP side has in some ways helped to overshadow Clinton's incredible weaknesses as a candidate.
There has been a lot of talk about how Trump would go into the general election as the least popular nominee in decades of polling. But that amazing stat helped obscure the fact that other than Trump, Clinton would be the most unpopular dating back to 1984, in New York Times/CBS polling.
Clinton remains mired in scandal and is still struggling to fend off a challenge from a septuagenarian socialist who she initially led by over 50 points nationally. As unpopular as Cruz may be with most registered voters, polling shows him within the margin of error nationally — and some polls taken in the last month have shown Cruz tied with Clinton in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida.
The bottom line is that in a Cruz versus Clinton race, both candidates would enter the race hugely unpopular. No matter what, a sizeable chunk of the electorate would be put in the position of either voting for a candidate who they actively despise, or staying home.
Cruz's narrative for how he could win a general election has always gone something like this: Republicans lose general elections because they nominate squishes, so the way to win is to nominate a truly principled conservative who will drive up turnout among the base.
There are good reasons to be skeptical of this theory. However, if there were ever an environment in which such a strategy could work, it would be something like the one in which we now find ourselves — in which both parties' nominees are so disliked by so many people that it drives down turnout among disillusioned swing voters, making it more crucial to turn out the base.
And if Cruz does become the GOP nominee, he will have done so because he proved himself a brilliant tactician with a stellar ground game.
Furthermore, the assumption is that Cruz cannot improve his image among the broader electorate, but that's hard to know for sure, because he's never had to do it. While opinions on Clinton are deeply entrenched after her decades in the public spotlight, Cruz isn't as universally known and has more of an opening to get a second look.
At the end of the day, Cruz is intelligent, a disciplined campaigner and a skilled debater. He has a chance to reach out to more voters through his vice-presidential pick. He can exploit Clinton's many weaknesses.
Cruz would enter the general election campaign with a reputation as an extremist, which the Clinton campaign would do everything to play up. But the risk of such a strategy comes if Cruz is able to defy such a caricature during the election among voters getting to know him for the first time.
To quote Shakespeare's Prince Hal: "By so much shall I falsify men's hopes/And like bright metal on a sullen ground/My reformation, glittering o'er my fault/Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes/Than that which hath no foil to set it off."