February 12, 2016
WARNING: What I’m about to argue is based uncomfortably heavily on one poll, just released by the Augusta Chronicle. I’ve had a theory for over a week and this data confirms it. This means I’m combining small sample size and confirmation bias.
You are not supposed to do this. I should wait a couple days to make sure other polls show similar results. I should wait until after the debate to see if that changes the tenor of the race.
Unfortunately, I don’t have time. If the Ted Cruz we’ve seen for the past few weeks shows up at the debate tomorrow, and Marco Rubio doesn’t absolutely choke, Top-tier Ted was a mirage. He’s making a few important mistakes, and there’s no point in waiting until it’s obvious to point them out.
First I’ll show you the poll, then we’ll talk about how it indicates Cruz is heading for an even bigger problem than the numbers indicate.
Donald Trump has a really big lead. That’s not good for Ted. He’s going to try to wear Trump down the way he did in Iowa. Right before the caucus, I argued Cruz was arguably better off narrowly losing than narrowly winning.
His tone over the final couple weeks was not effective for the wider GOP audience. It was keyed to Ted’s base. Staying in a narrow lane and leaning on an unquestionably strong ground game got him a win. It’s better to win than lose. No problem.
But the same Ted Cruz showed up in the Granite State and underperformed. He pitched this as a victory. Everybody bought it. That doesn’t make it true. When Rubio finished third in Iowa and said it was a pseudo-victory, that was true.
Rubio got 23% and finished far closer to first than fourth. He got a large percentage of late deciding voters. Cruz got 12% and finished closer to fifth than second, never mind first. He got very few late deciding voters, keeping the supporters he had a week before.
Just because New Hampshire is very secular and less conservative doesn’t mean 12% is an accomplishment. John McCain did better in Iowa in 2008. Here’s the list of GOP nominees who earned under 15% in either a contested Iowa caucus or New Hampshire primary:
No matter who wins this time, some or many of the old rules will lie in a broken heap. Cruz can win despite doing poorly in New Hampshire, as can Rubio. Still not a moral victory, just excellent spin.
It’s clear the New Hampshire debate hurt Rubio, Cruz didn’t benefit. He ran ads against Rubio the last few days in Iowa, that didn’t seem to harm Marco. This means Rubio has the advantage in a contest between the two.
That sounds strange, given that Cruz has stayed on message, while Rubio just committed a historic debate blunder. Cruz finished ahead of Rubio in Iowa, where he should have, and in New Hampshire where he shouldn’t have. Advantage Ted, right?
No. Whatever may have happened in the Granite State, South Carolina voters are still open to Rubio. That 15% is the highest he’s placed in a Palmetto State survey, up from when the Augusta Chronicle surveyed the race in January.
Rubio is the second choice of another 18%, more than any other candidate, and slightly ahead of Cruz. If Marco does fairly well in tomorrow’s debate, consider these guys effectively tied.
By itself, that shouldn’t be crippling. Rubio and Cruz are two fairly evenly matched candidates. Cruz has spent years preparing the groundwork in South Carolina for this run. Rubio’s campaign manager and several other high-level advisors are from the Palmetto State.
While they are maniacal about keeping official expectations low, Rubio’s team has seen this as his best early opportunity for a while. Meanwhile, Cruz is talking about this being a two-way race between him and Trump. It isn’t.
Saying you and Trump are the top-tier candidates and the others are fighting for scraps is fine if that’s actually true. South Carolina is not Iowa. It’s far more representative of the wider GOP electorate, part of the reason it is normally so decisive in the nomination process.
The percentage of evangelicals is very high, much like the Hawkeye State, but that doesn’t mean they think or vote the same way. A far higher percentage of South Carolinians are moderate or somewhat conservative, neither of which are in Ted’s lane.
In the Palmetto State, people are evangelical and Republican almost by default. Neither of those actually indicate very much. In Iowa, it’s a real decision. John Kasich and Jeb Bush are currently combining for 20%, equal to Cruz. In Iowa, the governors (including Chris Christie) combined for a stale Scooby Snack.
It’s true that Nominee Cruz probably wins South Carolina. The GOP nominee usually does. 2012 was a fluke. Newt Gingrich is from Georgia. He won Georgia and South Carolina, and would have won the Florida Panhandle if it was a state. No other victories.
Newt is a military historian and had a great debate moment 48 hours before the vote. A week out he was trailing Mitt Romney by a good amount. He was extremely well known by the voters and got a ton of free media in the days before the vote, particularly on Fox News.
South Carolina has never (since the primary became a thing in 1980) chosen an evangelical-first candidate. Ronald Reagan won the first one. Reagan was notable for his outreach to the evangelical community. He wasn’t a Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, or Ted Cruz.
George W. Bush is born-again. He did extremely well with social conservatives, who were a bedrock part of his coalition. Bush 43 won Iowa and South Carolina, lost New Hampshire. Cruz is trying to repeat this path. Again, a wider-spectrum candidate.
Otherwise, the Palmetto State has blessed George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain and Newt. If you just look at the previous winners, Donald Trump appears more likely than Ted Cruz, at least this version of him.
The Cruz campaign has long argued (as have others, like me) he is more viable than Huckabee and Santorum were. Supposedly, they suffered due to lack of funds and ground organization in later states. When they won Iowa, they weren’t able to capitalize.
Ted has money and organization. If you leave the self-funding, free-media hogging Trump out of this, now that Jeb! has spent a good amount of his campaign and PAC funds, Cruz is the best funded candidate on the GOP side. His ground game is very for real.
Unfortunately he’s not using this to widen his message. At the moment, his results look more like Santorum 2012 plus a couple/few percent. In Iowa, Santorum +3. New Hampshire, Santorum +3. South Carolina poll, Santorum +3.
He ran 6 points behind Huckabee 2008 in Iowa, 1 point ahead in New Hampshire. His polling is 10 points behind Huckabee’s South Carolina results. Somebody halfway between Santorum and Huckabee isn’t going to get nominated.
How is this possible? Isn’t Cruz a better candidate? No. Huckabee was a better candidate with less competition. Cruz has more money and organization. At best that’s a wash.
Huckabee was/is more likeable than Cruz. Some voters care about this. Huckabee was an economic populist. Ted has a bit of this to him too. He wants to audit the Fed, talks about economic inequality with some fluidity. His catch is you can only talk about so many things at once.
Cruz is attacking Trump on social issues. There is a more fundamentalist pocket in the Up Country part of the state. A thrice married previous proponent of unrestricted abortion is a target. Cruz is promoting himself as someone more ready to push back on gay marriage than Trump or Rubio.
Totally logical, but it puts Ted in the Santorum box. That guy is running as a better funded Santorum. Not good enough to win South Carolina. Especially not good enough when Ben Carson is down to 5% in a poll that only gave you 20%.
This is as bad as Carson can do. He’s not going to finish much lower than this. Even if the Doctor quit the race today, and all of his votes went to Cruz (neither of which are in play), it’s still only 25%. If Cruz is able to knock Trump down a little, as he did in Iowa, maybe he drops to 30%.
You’ll notice 30 > 25. Remember, Iowa is a caucus state. Trump has recently proven his poll numbers show up better on election day in a primary state. So Ted is in a state that he really needs if he wants to get nominated, has built expectations for a win, or at least very close second, but is mathematically short of the goal at the moment.
There are two places he can go to fill the gap. He can push on the economic populism angle, something he did very well in the CNBC debate back in late October. Cruz is running a semi-clever anti-Trump eminent domain ad, but isn’t explaining what he would do to bring jobs to depressed parts of the state.
NOTE: He may in fact talk about this in his stump speeches, but most voters won’t see one. If it doesn’t happen in a repeatable sound byte, on a debate stage, or in ads, it didn’t happen.
Absent a Ted Plan, Trump saying he’s going to bring back jobs from China, Japan, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Micronesia, Paraguay, wherever, will swing enough voters to give him an edge. Cruz does not talk about the economy very much (in clips, etc.)
Voters already are more likely to feel Cruz shares their values, they are fairly comfortable with him on terrorism/foreign policy. Trump has a huge edge on the economy. In a state that does not vote values-first, Cruz is giving up too much to him here.
The second option is to play General Election Ted. He managed this in the CNBC debate also. Crappy, biased moderators gave him an opportunity to rise above the fray and stand up for his fellow candidates. John Dickerson of CBS is moderating tomorrow’s contest. He will not provide this opportunity.
Rubio closed strong in Iowa by talking like the guy who will beat Hillary Clinton. He said “when I’m president” approximately 600 times. This is probably why he thought he could get away with repeating himself in the next debate (plus he froze a bit.)
A significant proportion of South Carolina voters are interested in winning in November. These are loyal Republicans. Some are very conservative, many aren’t. They want a GOP president. Cruz is very willing (I’d say too willing) to discuss strategy.
He talks about bringing together various parts of the party to win the nomination, so that a true Reagan conservative can go to the public in the fall. For South Carolina, he needs to show his work. If he can make three or four strong general election pitches during the debate, voters will be able to more easily picture him as the standard bearer.
If Cruz is still fighting to convince voters of his conservatism, he’s sunk. If he’s trying to remind them he’s the true social conservative, he’s sunk. That adds up to second place, third if Rubio has a good night.
So far, I haven’t heard General Election Ted or Economic Populist Ted for weeks. Upgraded Rick Santorum won’t win enough to get nominated. If I’m right, he has about 24 hours to change gears.
Combining a narrow pitch with expansive expectations leads to doom. The only other way he survives and gets nominated is if everyone else implodes. Could happen, but you don’t want to bet on the mistakes of others, especially when there are four other options.