January 30, 2016
Two days to go. There’s still no firm consensus on who is going to win the Republican caucus. Donald Trump led seven straight polls. However, only those with more lenient registered/likely voter criteria have him leading by more than the margin of error.
Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, the last two candidates to dominate the evangelical lane, both outperformed their recent polls on caucus day. If Cruz does slightly better than indicated, or Trump’s first-time caucusers don’t show up, he can win. People on the ground are estimating strong turnout, but aren’t willing to commit to the levels that would almost guarantee a Trump win.
So we’re missing the most important variable. Once we see how the Trumpists perform, it will make all future projections much easier, but that’s no help now. Then there’s the other matter of last-minute decision making. They say Iowans are extra prone to change their minds, but that’s probably true of most primary voters.
There just aren’t that many voters up for grabs in a general election, but in a fairly strong field of nomination challengers, it’s another story. Plenty of voters like Cruz and Marco Rubio. Plenty of voters like Trump and Cruz. Ted is relying on voters who have already caucused for Huckabee and Santorum to turn their back on both (which still appears almost certain).
He also needs to make sure most voters who chose Ron Paul in 2012 skip out on his son in 2016. Again, polls indicate this is very much the case, but it’s yet another way Cruz can lose a few votes. Anecdotally, it looks like a good chunk of the Paul ’12 crowd is actually feeling the Bern in ’16.
On Monday, I’ll tell you who I think is going to win, but for now I’m enjoying playing political Hamlet. Candidates like Cruz normally do very well in Iowa. I heard someone on TV say he’s been running in the Iowa caucus since his race in the Texas Senate primary.
Someone who appeals to evangelicals, has several key endorsements (the type that have an actual track record of normally belonging to winning candidates), has a largely consistent conservative track record, plenty of money, and has visited all 99 counties in Iowa, and seems like a credible national candidate should normally win.
You can argue his profile is the closest to the perfect caucus winner as any candidate ever, the only thing keeping him from perfection being residency in Texas instead of Iowa or a bordering state. The complete disinterest in the previous two winners is an indication of how well Ted fits.
Rick Perry 2.0, Scott Walker, and Bobby Jindal didn’t even make it to December, let alone caucus day. Each fit the Iowa template pretty well. That means a combination of Ted’s skill and their mistakes allowed him to marginalize three very successful conservative governors on top of the past two winners.
Cruz has run a very disciplined race. He spent enough time other places to build a foundation to go on a legit nomination run, while still focusing enough on Iowa to have covered it better than any candidate except the aforementioned semi-permanent Hawkeye State residents Huckabee and Santorum.
Perry had to overcome his 2012 debate performances. Cruz is a strong debater. Walker wasn’t ready for the big stage. Nobody would argue Ted isn’t up to the challenge. Jindal sounded semi-unhinged at times. Cruz is normally completely in control. Why are we even having this conversation?
Because Trump. There is a real chance Donald Trump of Manahattan will break 30% in Iowa. I started taking him seriously a long time ago, dare I say sooner than most. But I didn’t think he was a very likely nominee because I couldn’t see him getting to 30% in Iowa, giving Ben Carson (if he’d hung on) or Cruz the ability to win with 26-28%.
Well, his voters may not show, but Trump has broken 30% in 7 consecutive polls. As an aside, his overall national strength means he can probably get away with finishing second more easily than it looked a couple months ago.
Also because Rubio. After taking it easy in Iowa for months, Marco has hit the nitrous button. He’s camped out for the week and feeling the momentum. The vast majority of observers thought he bested Cruz in the debate last night. He’s surging in the polls, up as high as 18%, his best number yet.
Ted is the perfect Iowa candidate. Marco was always the ideal GOP nominee, it just wasn’t happening yet. It still may not happen. Overall, he’s a distant third in the polls. Soccer was always the sport of the future, Brazil the country of the future. Perhaps Rubio is the nominee of the future. He does talk about it a lot.
For voters who are angry beyond recognition, Trump is a better vessel. For voters who want to hear at least some sunshine (even in a year of anger, many of us prefer happier thoughts), Rubio fits the bill. As much as Cruz seems like the Goldilocks candidate for Iowa, looked at this way, he can just as easily fall between the cracks.
This sets up a dangerous trap for Ted. Trump and Rubio (not to mention more niche candidates like Rand Paul and Carson), each have the ability to cut into Cruz’s support. Iowa isn’t perceived as home turf for either. While some worry Trump will lose crucial momentum if he falls short, commentators all realize he’s at an effective disadvantage here.
A win for Trump is a bigger deal than a win for Cruz. Ted himself was recorded telling a group of ministers that The Donald could wrap up the nomination quickly if he won Iowa and then swept through New Hampshire and South Carolina.
A win for Rubio (still unlikely, though not impossible), would be an earthquake. The odds of Cruz recovering from that are slim. Ted knows this and has adjusted his weekend attack ads to hit Marco instead of Trump. He can get away with losing to Trump, figuring there are enough people in the party who want another choice.
Ted can survive finishing second to Trump, but finishing third is borderline deadly. It’s also mathematically possible. Rubio has more upside than downside, Trump has at least as much upside as downside. Cruz is in for a very nervous 48 hours. If he wins, we can chuckle about all the speculation.
But if he finishes second, he needs a plan. First, he needs to resolve the Canada thing. Most Republicans figure he’s eligible. Getting past Trump in South Carolina is hard enough if Cruz wins Iowa, it’s even tougher if he doesn’t. If he can’t win there, trying to finish ahead in Alabama, Georgia, or any of the other March 1st states Ted prepared for becomes very difficult.
Trump didn’t stop focusing on Jeb’s “low energy” until that became a permanent part of the narrative. Now every review of a Jeb debate performance references his energy level. Even if you think Cruz is more than eligible, you might wonder why he doesn’t just get a court declaration, or ask the Senate to extend him the same courtesy they did John McCain in 2008, when they voted 100-0 to affirm he was in the clear.
Failure to ask the Senate (which didn’t force McCain to ask) further reminds voters Ted’s poison in the Capitol building. There aren’t enough voters who are happy other senators hate him who don’t also prefer Trump to get Cruz nominated.
Anyway, Ted needs to get this one off the table somehow (admittedly, I have no idea how easy the court maneuver is, but if it’s hard, he needs to change Trump’s narrative on it. He makes it sound like nothing.)
The other important adjustment is tone and focus. He’s slipping/has slipped for two reasons. First, he’s spending way too much time hitting Trump for lack of conservatism. There’s nothing wrong with running tons of ads on the subject. The problem is it winds up being Ted’s sound bite(s) for the day. He’s not giving himself time to make his sale (or attack Hillary).
Every day, Rubio has a clip talking about how he’s going to unite the party and defeat Hillary. Trump has shown the value of repeating a message every day. If Cruz doesn’t adjust, Rubio winning the general election is going to be as common a thought as Trump wanting to build a wall and have Mexico pay.
People can picture Trump building a wall. He builds things. People can picture Rubio defeating Hillary. He’s more likeable. Republicans would wonder why any sane person would choose her. There are voters who care Cruz is the most consistently conservative. Just not enough to get him nominated.
As long as he finishes ahead of Rubio and relatively close to Trump, Cruz can hang in there with those adjustments. He doesn’t have much time. Starting March 15, the calendar shifts to states that are neutral at best for him. After the Ides of March, the schedule favors Trump, Rubio, or any surviving governor.
Even if Cruz wins, he still needs to make those adjustments. He won’t get that many points for winning, and many will chalk it up to Trump’s decision to ditch the debate (even if that’s almost impossible to prove). Over-pandering and playing to his base helped cause Ted’s shaky debate performance.
Either way he needs to shift. People who care if their candidate can speak evangelical are already for him. People who care if you’re super-consistent are already for him. When the race is down to three candidates, you need a solid 35-40% to win enough. The missing 10% is looking for someone who can show more range.
That’s an easier play than waiting for Trump to implode, or trying to bring him down yourself, when Rubio or someone else may benefit. Remember, many of his voters are too moderate to pick Ted.
Win, lose, or draw, he needs a soft reboot. If he finishes a close second and makes a reference to Reagan finishing a close second in Iowa in 1980, he needs a hard reboot. Reagan references do not work to his benefit. He’s not similar enough in temperament, bearing or stature to make the comparison favorable.