Cruz, Iowa, and the Hidden GOP Base Vote

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, unlike pretty much all of his rivals for the Republican nomination for president, has had a disciplined and careful plan for winning.

Other contenders were thrown off course by the emergence of Donald Trump as the clear poll leader nationally and in virtually every state, and seemed unable to handle Trump’s ability to overwhelmingly dominate media coverage of the race while sprinkling in putdowns of the other candidates. Cruz, on the other hand, continued to do what he has done since his election to the Senate in 2012, and with his immediate forays into the early 2016 caucus and primary states in the winter of 2013. His approach has been to stay to the right of every other possible Republican contender, and to claim the leadership role in the conservative base’s war with the party’s establishment and leaders in the House and Senate.

When neurosurgeon Ben Carson became a favorite of evangelicals, Cruz’s strategy to win Iowa based on his own strong ties to evangelicals and conservative voters was in jeopardy. With Trump leading the pack and competitive in Iowa, a Carson victory in that state would have relegated Cruz to third place or worse, and damaged any ability to build on Iowa elsewhere. Cruz seemed to understand from the start that taking on Trump was likely to be a losing proposition for whichever candidate took this approach. So Cruz played nice with Trump, and waited for the evangelicals' infatuation with Carson to run its course.

The terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino badly damaged Carson. His soft-spoken pronouncements did not match the emerging national desire to fight back harder against ISIS and to soundly reject the avoidance strategy of the day from the White House. There was also renewed focus on taking stronger measures within the United States to prevent the rapid spread of homegrown radicalization and terror from radical Islamists, whose existence the White House refuses to acknowledge.

Cruz out-organized his GOP rivals in Iowa, and won two key endorsements: Congressman Steve King and evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats.

Vander Plaats had supported Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012, both of whom were upset winners of the Iowa caucuses. While Donald Trump was holding rallies across the country and other candidates focused on winning second place in New Hampshire -- a state with far fewer evangelicals as a share of Republican voters than Iowa -- Cruz spent more time in Iowa. He built up a lead there, as confirmed by nearly every survey taken in late December and early January.

Then The Donald struck back, suggesting that Cruz might not be eligible to serve as president since he was born in Canada and not “a natural born” citizen. Cruz responded with the facts, but soon learned that when Donald Trump strikes, just the facts are not an adequate response or defense. Trump has now retaken the lead in Iowa in the three most recent surveys, and Cruz’s momentum has stalled.

Suddenly Cruz’s strategy for the nomination is at risk: win Iowa, take second in New Hampshire, win South Carolina, and then win most of the primaries on March 1, several of which are in southern states. This strategy assumed that a Trump loss in Iowa would damage him badly elsewhere, with the aura of momentum, victory, and poll leads smashed.

The Cruz campaign, no longer gliding to victory in Iowa, is now exploring new lines of attack against Trump. They may find, to their dismay, that Trump’s base of support is solid, at least as far as polls. Whether there will be a stampede to the caucuses on Iowa's caucus date, February 1, is less clear, since many Trump supporters have never participated in these events before. But the emerging battle between Trump and Cruz seems to suggest that the two candidates draw largely from different pools. If either were to emerge as the Republican nominee, he would need to absorb much of the other’s base of support to have a chance in the general election.

Trump, unlike Cruz, attracts lots of supporters who are not often engaged in the political process, including a decent share of Democrats. It is not hard to see most conservative voters shifting from Cruz to Trump if he were the nominee. Of course, Trump will also drive away voters as well.