What Will the #NeverTrump Faction Do Now?

Ted Cruz’s abrupt exit from the race for the GOP presidential nomination after his devastating 16-point loss to Donald Trump in this week’s Indiana primary was just the latest surprise in one of the most unpredictable election seasons in recent history.

Cruz had promised to stay in the race until the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this summer, offering himself as the alternative candidate for conventioneers to pick should Trump end the primary season short of the necessary 1,237 delegates. But Cruz couldn’t keep his campaign alive solely on his outsized ambitions. Cruz’s strategy depended on a strong showing in the remaining primaries and at least a win or two—especially in a state like Indiana where he had promised victory.

In his campaigning across Indiana, Cruz doubled-down on a hard right strategy—not the least predictable tactic for the often fire-breathing Cruz. As a son of a fiery evangelist who himself often sounds more revival preacher than politician, Cruz gravitated to the “culture war” side of politics with ease in Indiana as he has on so many other stops along the campaign way.

But Cruz’s approach in the Hoosier state was as cynical as it was calculated. Cruz’s view of the state wasn’t much different than those of the cultural elites he supposedly deplores who brush the heartland off as “flyover country.” As Adam Wren wrote in Politico this week, Cruz looked at Indiana from a distance of 30,000 feet as “a barn-red bastion of Bible-believing IndyCar social conservatives.”

Circumstances on the ground seemed to confirm that view. White evangelicals, for instance, make up 55 percent of the state’s GOP voters. And Indiana’s governor, Republican Mike Pence, had signed an expansive Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) into law just last year.

In response, Cruz’s Indiana campaign ran on boilerplate culture wars stuff, making North Carolina’s transgender bathroom law a centerpiece of his speeches and running nonstop ads that warned Trump would let Caitlyn Jenner use whichever bathroom she wanted in Trump Tower.

Cruz’s father, Rafael, joined in, contending Trump’s election “could be the destruction of America.” “I exhort every member of the body of Christ to vote according to the word of God,” Rafael beseeched Indianans, meaning, of course, that they should choose his son.

All of this must have seemed like a winning strategy for the Cruz team in Indiana. But everything about the 2016 GOP race thus far has only served to shatter prior notions and upend the type of conventional politics Cruz gambled on in Indiana.

As Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, noted earlier this year in The New Republic:

I think Trump may have tapped something that’s deeper than religious identity or culture-war issues: this deep anxiety that white conservative Christian culture is passing from the scene. So Trump’s appeal to bring back an America that many conservative white evangelicals feel is slipping away turned out to be a more powerful appeal than a checklist of issue.

Ergo, Cruz’s approach ultimately didn’t work in Indiana, as it has faltered in so many other states. When the votes were tallied Tuesday night, Cruz found himself once again coming behind Trump in capturing the evangelical vote. (Trump picked up one in two of Indiana’s evangelical voters, while Cruz scored 44 percent of their support.)

That Cruz, the social conservative, could not win in the Hoosier state—and indeed, that he could suffer such a humbling defeat—says more about the current state of Republican politics than it does about Cruz the candidate, although there is plenty to say about his political weaknesses.

Populist rage, rather than social conservatism, is driving Republican voters in this election cycle.

Cruz’s poor showing and his exit (along with John Kasich’s) still raise important questions, not least: What will the #neverTrump faction do now?

The conditions seem ripe for a third-party candidate, and Cruz may very well go that route. If he does, it is unlikely he will run as a politician who has learned his lessons.

More likely, as the self-righteous do, he will continue to beat the drum of religious persecution and cultural combativeness.

It’s a powerful refrain in American politics, no doubt, but one that, for at least this election, has been dampened by the louder strains of economic populism and white resentment.