Marco Rubio vs Ted Cruz: The Differences Between the Candidates

US Senator Marco Rubio. Chip Somodeville - Getty Images

Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have plotted different strategies to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Are there any two men that seem both very similar and at the same time not at all similar?

Political Differences

When comparing Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, I see two men who ideologically wouldn't be all that different if elected president. While they have taken different paths to get where they are and use very different means to accomplish their goals, they are very similar on policy.

No matter what the talk radio and burn-it-all-down conservatives would have you believe, the reality is that Rubio and Cruz are not ideologically very different. And while this is the part many will scream "Gang of Eight," both men have a very similar blueprint on immigration that includes opposition to comprehensive legislation, proving the border is secured first, and opposing mass deportation.

So what do the top conservative organizations have to say about both candidates? Rubio has a lifetime score of 98% from the American Conservative Union, 100% from Americans for Prosperity, and a 93% from Heritage Action. As you might predict, Ted Cruz scores a 100% from all three groups. On the Heritage score, the only significant difference between the two appears to be Rubio's vote in favor of Trade Promotion Authority and Cruz's vote against it. The catch? Cruz was actually a major backer of the legislation and changed his mind less than two weeks after Heritage Action announced they would be scoring against it.

Oddly enough, this had Cruz joining a majority of the far-left Democratic caucus - including Bernie Sanders - and Big Labor in opposing the bill. It still passed with conservative Democrats and most of the Republicans voting in favor. So even when the candidates do disagree, the lines can get blurry quick.

All About the Image

So if the two men aren't really that far apart ideologically, why are they treated as such by so many? Rubio is an "establishment" candidate while Cruz is an "outsider." That's easy: the versions you see of each candidate is more a matter of political strategy than anything else. These are roles they have strategically chosen to play. After all, politicians are gonna politic, and the public persona they adopt is very intentional. For Cruz, his path to the US Senate was inspired by the 2010 "insurgent" campaigns of Mike Lee, Joe Miller, Ken Buck, Sharon Angle, and Christine O'Donnell. They all used voter anger to topple the establishment-preferred candidate. Only Mike Lee actually went on to victory but, as is the case in Texas, a Republican who wins the nomination wins the general election. Cruz was never going to out-establishment the establishment candidate, so he went the Tea Party route. In Texas, it had a chance to work. Thanks to support from once-Kingmaker Sarah Palin, it actually did.

Facing an uphill battle against an establishment Republican, Cruz adopted the very successful 2010 tea party model. At the time, Sarah Palin's endorsement was still a very powerful weapon, and he received it.

He would even rightfully credit her for the surge in momentum and the win. And though Cruz would actually under-perform Mitt Romney on the ballot that year, it's still Texas and the GOP nominee was always going to win, so nominating him was not a risky bet. But what worked for Cruz in red-state Texas in 2012 likely would not have worked for him in purple Florida, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, or Ohio in 2010. And it didn't work for similar candidates in Connecticut, Nevada, and Colorado.

In 2010, Rubio intentionally declined to consider himself a "tea party" candidate, while others like Mike Lee and Rand Paul embraced the tea party label, and Paul even used the title in a book. And Cruz did so for very practical reasons. Unlike Lee, Paul, and Cruz - all red-states Senators - Rubio was fighting to get elected in Florida, a state that twice voted for Barack Obama.

Being pigeonholed as a niche candidate and traveling the state with the Tea Party Express wouldn't have necessarily been a huge plus in a general election. Rubio wanted to campaign as a conservative, but not as the Saturday Night Live caricature of one. His decision was to run as a mainstream conservative with broad appeal. And like fellow 2010 winners Pat Toomey (PA), Ron Johnson (WI), and Kelly Ayotte (NH), choosing to be positioned as a mainstream conservative was a necessity for winning. The same could be said for 2014 Senate newcomers Joni Ernst (IA), Thom Tillis (NC), Dan Sullivan (AK), and Cory Gardner (CO).

The Electability Argument

This may sound cliche, but it is also true: each man's greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. For Rubio, his universal appeal has him second only to Ben Carson in popularity. He scores very well with most Republican sub-groups, including conservatives, evangelicals, center-right conservatives, and moderates. Rather than appealing to one specific voter bloc, he appeals to all of them. While this is a good "problem" to have, it also means he usually isn't the top choice of any specific voter group. As a result, though he's acceptable to establishment Republicans, they often already have loyalties with candidates like Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie. (And being part of the establishment is about the loyalty, entitlement, and next-in-line mentality more than it is ideology.) And while Rubio is acceptable to most conservatives, the talk radio and clickbait conservative overlords want a more in-your-face, bow-down-to-the-purity-test candidate. (Except, again, for their love of Donald Trump, which is still mostly inexplicable.) The good news for Rubio is being everybody's number two could be enough to end up number one.

Cruz has the opposite problem. His strength is he potentially has a very strong built-in base. The "grassroots" enthusiasm coupled with purity-test driven talk radio and online activism could give Cruz a very big lift in the early stages.

This tea party lane was supposed to be his alone, but Ben Carson and Donald Trump have pushed him aside. But many feel that both will fade - hinting that Cruz is just establishment enough to have an edge in perceived electability - and Cruz will reclaim the lane. If so, thats a huge chunk of support to have. But the downside is Cruz's tea-party candidacy has very limited appeal, and his chosen strategy puts him at risk of being a front-loaded candidate. The actions taken to get the rebel label he proudly wears equally allows for little opportunity to prove to mainstream conservatives, moderates, and independents in the party that he can represent them as well.

And here's what that boils down to: Which candidate do voters believe can beat Hillary Clinton? While voters say early on they want the candidate who agrees with them, they end up nominating the one they believe can win. Rubio has the edge in both case. Voters believe he can win and they typically believe what he believes as well (though the headwinds of the clickbait conservatives will be strong.) Rubio is running a very-conservative, inclusive general election-style campaign in the primary. He's already making the case to a broader electorate. For Cruz, his message is geared toward one segment (the tea party) of one party (the GOP) representing a small chunk f the electorate. Attacking the Republican establishment as being to liberal might come as a warning sign for the moderate independents in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa who might view the same people as too conservative. What changes would he have to make to run a broadly-appealing general election campaign? In short, his primary strategy is non-transferable to a general election, and that could have lasting impact on his perceived electability.

So what's the difference between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz? Not too much... and a whole lot.