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Ted Cruz's Nerd-Whistle Campaign

It's a niche campaign meant to reach nativists and fans of Star Trek and the Simpsons. Will it work?
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(Photo: 20th Century Fox Television)

(Photo: 20th Century Fox Television)

Senator Ted Cruz has always faced long odds and a difficult path to the Republican nomination. As he surely must be somewhat aware, parties tend not to nominate people whom they despise, and he's rather gone out of his way to make enemies within the party since he arrived in Washington, D.C. He has seemingly adapted to this problem by trying to assemble an improbable (though maybe not impossible) coalition of nativists and nerds.

One issue Cruz has championed is the battle against illegal immigration. He has warned about the dangers of illegal immigrants from Mexico committing heinous violent crimes and challenged President Obama's executive order on immigration. He basically would be the presidential field's most outspoken opponent of illegal immigration if not for one other person: Donald Trump. Trump's statements dismissing Mexican immigrants as drug pushers and rapists, of course, make Cruz's stances seem thoughtful and nuanced.

Interestingly, Cruz is one of the few presidential candidates in the field who not only hasn't criticized Trump's statements as offensive, but has actually defended Trump. Cruz seems, not unwisely, to recognize that one of two things will soon happen: Either Trump will become the runaway favorite for the Republican nomination, in which case nothing Cruz says will matter, or, more likely, Trump's bubble will burst, and Cruz will have positioned himself as the inheritor of the anti-immigrant Republican electorate.

James Kirk is into cowboy diplomacy, has an abiding faith in balance of power, and is dismissive of workplace sexual harassment concerns (and is actually the main perpetrator at his workplace).

But Cruz isn't just waiting for the Trump situation to resolve itself; he's also actively reaching out to obscure pockets of voters. Recently, he demonstrated his love for the Simpsons by creating a fake audition tape in which he imitated Ned Flanders, Montgomery Burns, Homer and Lisa Simpson, and several other characters long beloved by Simpsons geeks. Make no mistake: These imitations were horrible. But it would be hard to dismiss them as insincere. It would be a weird political maneuver to fake a love for a television show that hasn't been particularly relevant since Bill Clinton was in office. Rather, Cruz seems to be a legitimate Simpsons fan who figured he could reach out to other fans for support, and probably wouldn't alienate anyone else in the process. (And really, did those impressions cost him the support of anyone who already liked him?)

Going further into geekdom, Cruz recently gave an interview with the New York Times Magazine answering questions about superheroes and Star Trek. In particular, he says he prefers James Kirk to Jean Luc Picard as a captain, and he suggests that Kirk is a Republican while Picard is a Democrat. For the purposes of this article, I'm not going to get into that question.

No, wait, I totally am. First, any defender of Kirk's leadership should read this Dan Drezner piece, which notes how Kirk spends much of his time putting the Enterprise and the Federation in danger, and his crew spends much of its time fixing damage Kirk has already done. But beyond that, what do we make of the Kirk = Republican / Picard = Democrat thing? Well, sure, Kirk is into cowboy diplomacy, has an abiding faith in balance of power, and is dismissive of workplace sexual harassment concerns (and is actually the main perpetrator at his workplace). But he's also highly racially tolerant. All of these traits put him right in the mainstream of both parties in the mid-1960s, the era in which his character was created. But it's certainly possible that some those traits would be deemed more Republican today. And Picard is French, which, for many of Cruz's supporters, is synonymous with Democratic.

So there's a logic to Cruz's claims, even if they aren't quite apt for 23rd- and 24th-century voters. What's more, William Shatner, like Cruz, is from Canada, and James Kirk is from Iowa, which hosts the first nomination contest in a few months. So one can certainly understand Cruz's fondness for Kirk.

But all this just begs the question of why Cruz is talking about it. Of all the places to stake out an identity and distinguish oneself from the large pack of presidential candidates, why the Simpsons and Star Trek?

In a crowded field, there's a certain logic to appealing to niche markets. Cruz knows he doesn't have be number one in the polls—at least not yet—but he just has to capture enough interest that he's not at the bottom, and it would be useful for him to be among the top 10 who are selected for the premier debates later this summer. As far as I know, no other Republican presidential candidate has worked so hard for the votes of Republican fans of Star Trek and the Simpsons; maybe their support, however small, might just be what Cruz needs to keep his campaign alive in the short run.

What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.

*Thanks to Joe Doherty and Hans Noel for some useful Star Trek-related insights.