Short Of A Big Mistake, Voters’ Minds Are Made Up Ahead Of Tonight’s Cruz-O’Rourke Debate

The Kavanaugh hearing energized Republican and Democratic voters, and with President Trump backing Cruz, it’s Beto O’Rourke’s last chance to “change some minds.”

By Rachel Osier LindleyOctober 16, 2018 7:53 am, ,

Remember the last Cruz and O’Rourke debate? The duel in Dallas, if you will?

Well, believe it or not, that wasn’t even a month ago. But in keeping with the rapid-fire pace of American politics that we’ve all sort of gotten used to…

“Since the last debate I think that you have seen a lot of big picture things happen nationally,” says Rebecca Deen who heads the political science department at the University of Texas at Arlington. “You’ve seen the odds of the Senate flipping to the Democrats is decreasing. And at the same time, the odds of the Democrats taking back the House increasing. And the Kavanaugh hearing has motivated a lot of base Republican voters.”

Let’s start there: the battle to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, amid sexual assault allegations.

Protesters accosted Sen. Cruz and his wife as they ate dinner at a D.C. restaurant, after Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, and just a few days before his former high school classmate and accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Cruz ended up leaving the restaurant, and videos of the encounter went viral. Then came the day Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh testified.

And quick time-check: it hasn’t even been three whole weeks since then, or since Matt Damon’s portrayal of Kavanaugh on “Saturday Night Live.”

“I’m going to start at an eleven and take it to a 15 real quick!!” he exclaimed in the sketch.

Now, Rebecca Deen says the investigation that followed gave both parties time and talking points to really rally their bases.

“Senator Cruz was very critical of the extended time for investigation. He was one of the ones who was painting the Democrats as just delaying,” Deen says.

It has all resonated with Republicans and Democrats. A recent CBS News/YouGov poll found more than half the registered voters in the states they surveyed, including Texas, were more motivated to cast a ballot after the Kavanaugh proceedings. But that report also said these respondents could just be people who were already going to vote anyway.

“So, the issue here for both candidates is turnout. And Senator Cruz, and you can see this through his ads, is really focused on mobilizing his base, getting them energized and making sure they all turn out,” Deen says.

Take the ad Cruz released in early October: it shines a harsh light on O’Rourke’s comments about police violence against people of color. Deen says Cruz has bought up significant amounts of air time between now and the election.

“Then, on the flip side, Congressman O’Rourke is trying to mobilize a new set of voters. And so that’s a little bit of a different calculus for him,” Deen says.

That makes for a strategy that includes a lot of TV, too. But also and emphasis on social media. And, of course, it’s not just the two campaigns getting into the fray; there are PACs, special interest groups and high-profile politicos. Sen. Cruz has appeared with Donald Trump. Jr. and Vice President Mike Pence. On the other side, Texas filmmaker Richard Linklater directed a new pair of ads for an anti-Cruz super PAC.

Tonight’s debate will focus half on domestic policy and half on foreign policy. But ultimately, Deen says the topics might not matter.

“So, if one of them were to make a very big mistake, then that probably has a palpable impact on voters’ decision-making. Short of that at this stage in the election, voters’ minds have begun to be made up. And it’s a question of Will they get their people to the polls?” Deen says.

Just yesterday, President Trump announced he’d hold a rally for Cruz in Houston on Oct. 22, the same day early voting starts. Trump won Texas by 9 points – the same advantage Cruz had, according to the latest Quinnipiac Poll. O’Rourke’s back is against the wall. Tonight could be O’Rourke’s last chance to change some minds.