My “Ted Cruz: Sleeper” column from October 7 is by far the most read blog of my life. I’ve ushered readers through the last three primary cycles, and nothing else I’ve written has earned even half the clicks that post did. Within a couple days it had over 2,000 pieces of facebook activity (shares, likes, and comments), and Chris Hayes’s MSNBC show coincidentally had a “Ted Cruz: Sleeper Candidate” segment at week’s end. Coincidentally.
While I’d like to think the underlying reason for its success was the quality of writing and ideas, we all know that couldn’t possibly be it. Once WordPress alerted me to the huge pop in readership, I did some hunting for an explanation. I found that it caught fire with the “Cruz Crew” on social media. Among those who shared, liked, or tweeted it was Rick Tyler, Cruz’s Communications Director (or, as I like to call him, “Cruz’s Toby Ziegler“) and Chris Wilson, Cruz’s director of research and analytics (or, as I like to call him, “Cruz’s director of research and analytics”).
Within a few days the readership fell back down to double digits and I was a loser again, but it was an exciting few days here at Presidential Politics for America!
I start with that story not to relive glory days, but to make a point about the Cruz Crew. Among my October arguments for Cruz’s eventual success — remember, at the time of the column oddsmakers had him at about 25/1 (about the same as dearly departed Huckabee), and his polls hovered at sixth place between 5 and 8 points — was that he would win over much of the unprecedentedly conservative Republican Party and then surge in Iowa and South Carolina (as Carson and Trump faded) thanks to having spent so much time building a strong organization and fundraising network inside the Texas-Iowa-South Carolina triangle.
That organization and network — which has brought him the best hard fundraising numbers and most cash on hand of any Republican candidate — is everything. The Cruz Crew is dedicated. Back when I did my retroactively embarrassing “candidate profiles” series in July, the hits on my Ted Cruz profile dwarfed those of the next most viewed entry. Their dedication is something I’ve noticed not just from my blog’s clicks, but also across social media and the various political websites. They know their hashtags, how to reach more people, and are organized on the ground. The Cruz Crew has the most active supporters of any Republican candidate. (Bernie Sanders probably has more active supporters overall, thanks to the tiny Democratic field, but I’d wager the Cruz Crew is more active per capita.)
Thanks to the Crew, Ted Cruz won Iowa despite his late tumble in polling. His supporters on the ground were incredibly organized, and the campaign’s ground game turned them out to the polls. However, an important question is: will the Crew be that successful in more places than Iowa?
Among the many decisions I looked forward to after Iowa was how campaigns would react. Would Trump attack Cruz, Rubio, or both? Would Rubio finally start going after Trump? Would the desperate governors go after Rubio or Trump in New Hampshire? Would Jim Gilmore show us what he looks like?
As far as the Iowa winner was concerned, what made me most curious was where he would campaign next. On Tuesday I recommended that “If I were him, while Trump and Rubio spend the next week duking it out in New Hampshire, Cruz should get a head start in South Carolina, where he can try to get the leg up before it hosts a bruising three-way brawl between them.” Instead, however, he chose to follow conventional wisdom and go straight to New Hampshire. Apparently, he doesn’t read PPFA. Big mistake.
Nevertheless, it’s a defensible decision. During the build up to Iowa, I think people were trained to think that Cruz’s popularity is limited to the evangelical wing of the party. True enough, it did carry him to Monday’s victory. However, Cruz’s shrewd politics actually has him straddling, like an enormous Texan colossus, two often disparate Republican groups. He’s not only popular with the religious right, but he also has fans from the Tea Party/libertarian wing that wants government off their backs and out of their wallets. New Hampshire is perhaps the top libertarian state in the country. Speaking libertarian language almost as good as the Paul family, Cruz is a vocal Constitutionalist who favors a strict interpretation of this founding document.
A Cruz effort in New Hampshire would totally rely on this pivot. Evangelicalism is not big in the Granite State, so while thumping the Bible worked in Iowa, it’s thumbing the Constitution that would play in New Hampshire.
However, a decision to go to New Hampshire is the wrong decision. With Rand Paul dropping out of the race yesterday, Cruz really has no competition for those Tea Party/libertarian voters. I don’t think Cruz needs to hit New Hampshire diners to consolidate that vote, especially coming off his Iowa win. In the meantime, he also has no chance to win over the many New Hampshire moderates while the likes of Bush, Kasich, and Christie are shaking every moderate hand in the state. Instead, with their other hand, those establishment governors will be gouging out each others’ eyes for every percentage point. Trump and Rubio are the most likely top two, but everyone else will limit each others’ totals. Cruz uniting the libertarians and far right conservatives in the state, along with his Iowa momentum, will be enough to compete for third place, and he doesn’t even have to show up. But if he does show up and things don’t go well, he risks losing the expectations game and momentum heading into the third state.
Instead, he should go directly to South Carolina, host of that third contest, where he can consolidate support ahead of its February 20 primary. South Carolina is almost a proxy for the entire South, where evangelicals and the Cruz Crew are strongest:
Even though South Carolina is more evangelical than Iowa is, the Palmetto State won’t be as conquerable as the Hawkeye State. For starters, the ideological composition is different. Compare Monday’s entrance polls with the South Carolina Primary’s 2012 exit polls. Here are the percentages of Republican voters who self-identified as a certain ideology:
South Carolina is clearly the more moderate Republican state. Those Iowa entrance polls also reveal that among Iowans who called themselves conservative, Cruz won a strong plurality; he earned 31 percent with Trump and Rubio nearly ten points behind. Among moderate/liberal voters, however, Trump won 33 percent, Rubio 27, and Cruz just nine. With twice as many moderate/liberal voters in South Carolina, the colossally conservative Cruz has a slightly tougher path that can’t be made up with just evangelical voters, who already comprise most of the conservative chunk.
Secondly, South Carolina will be tough for Cruz because he can’t count on Kasich and Christie elbowing Rubio on the establishment lane. (I think Bush hangs in through South Carolina.) Perhaps one of them survives to South Carolina, but that’s it. Their money and supporters are likely finding their way to Rubio by the primary. Meanwhile, Trump might be flying high off a New Hampshire win, or at least boasting about being the only candidate with two top-2 finishes (I’ll tell ya, no one is a better runner up than me, if you wanna know the truth, and I mean that); he’ll then head to the South where he draws rock star crowds. New Hampshire is fun, but South Carolina is going to be even better when these three go at it.
South Carolina not being easy for Cruz is exactly why he should get a head start. If he flew directly there, he’d have 19 days to do a Santorumesque 44-county tour, an accomplishment about which he can boast right before the primary while reminding voters that Trump and Rubio only showed up last week. He’s already second in the state’s polls, and he could ride this strategy to a narrow victory. Cruz would then have two victories under his belt with only Nevada remaining before Super Tuesday. Nevada’s another caucus state, which means the Cruz Crew can yet again turn out a good crowd; still, even if he loses it, his two victories are at least tied for the most before Super Tuesday, and if Trump and Rubio split the other two, he’s in the clear lead.
Getting that second victory, including starting the South out on the right foot, is imperative for the Cruz campaign. The sooner he can get a clear leg up on Trump, the sooner he can rally antiestablishment voters against the inevitable late rally of Rubio and his strength in moderate states. Carson is going to drop out relatively soon, and his voters will mostly turn to whichever candidate looks strongest when he withdraws. Cruz will sponge up the supporters of Huckabee, Paul, and Santorum, but Carson’s would be the best haul yet. Beating Trump in South Carolina is the way to earn those voters.
So how do I like his chances long-term? I’m trying very hard not to overreact to Iowa and move Cruz back to his #2 spot (where I had him from November through January) after bumping him to #3 (on February 1). Trump should be considered a favorite to win New Hampshire, and then maybe he can wrest back the narrative. But I’m forced to wonder if Trump’s second place in Iowa — at just 24 percent! — signifies his polling numbers, which we were skeptical of, are softer than they appear. Was Iowa merely a harbinger of an impending Trump underperformance nationally? It’s in the cards.
The underlying equation for Cruz’s longterm success is: are evangelicals + liberatrians + Tea Party voters enough to overcome Rubio’s eventual unification of moderate and establishment Republicans and all the money and endorsements that come with it? Can the early southern primaries get him on an inevitable path to the 1,327 delegates required to be the nominee before Rubio picks up enough momentum?
My answer is no. I still love Rubio as the nominee, thanks to blue states with huge delegate numbers and his position as the party’s most electable candidate against Hillary Clinton. Still, Cruz’s only shot is to unleash the Cruz Crew across the South to rack up huge Southern numbers, starting as early as possible.
That starts by going to South Carolina before Trump and Rubio do.