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Is Ted Cruz the Real GOP Frontrunner?

After Scott Walker and Rick Perry dropped out of the presidential race in September, a majority of their donors ran to support Ted Cruz. A CNBC analysis found that 91 Walker and Perry donors funded Cruz, while only 37 jumped to support Fiorina’s campaign. Sixteen went to Florida Senator Marco Rubio, 12 supported Carson, and 4 chose Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. None went to Bush, or any other candidate.

Cruz also raised the most money from these former Walker and Perry donors, at $70,000, more than twice Fiorina’s haul of $30,000.

Former Perry donors switching to Cruz may prove little surprise, given the Texas roots of both candidates. Perry was the longest serving governor of Texas until 2014, and Cruz was elected U.S. senator from Texas in 2012. Cruz outraised all his competitors in contributions from the Lone Star State in the third quarter of 2015.

Perry’s campaign only raised $1.5 million, but his super PAC reportedly raised nearly $17 million. When the former governor ended his campaign, he had only $45,000 on hand, demonstrating the hard limits on super PAC-spending allowed by the Citizens United decision. Elections cannot be bought by super PACs, despite the fears of campaign finance reform advocates.

Walker’s decision to quit remains somewhat mysterious, however. His campaign had raised $7.1 million, and still had $1 million on hand when the Wisconsin governor pulled the plug. Conventional wisdom states that Walker spent too much too fast, building a huge campaign infrastructure after gaining early traction, but failing to keep the machine running as his numbers fell. He failed to play the long game.

Walker’s appeal rested on his claim to be a fighter. As governor, Walker weakened the power of public sector unions and passed Right to Work -- a series of laws allowing workers to opt out of being in a union. He took the fight to the Democrats' union stronghold, and won a recall in 2012 and re-election in 2014, by larger margins than his original victory in 2010.

Supporters of the Wisconsin governor may have opted to follow another fighter, like Cruz or Fiorina. Cruz has developed a strong -- and controversial -- conservative reputation by using every legal weapon at his disposal to stop the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. He also hosted a rally against the Iran deal and tried to push a bill to defund Planned Parenthood, despite the Obama administration’s likely response of shutting down the government.

Fiorina bills herself as the anti-Hillary Clinton, and talks a mean game against the likely Democratic frontrunner. Perhaps Walker’s donors see in her the fire they prized so highly in the Wisconsin governor.

A National Journal study found that Cruz has raised the most from donors to other "insurgent" candidates, such as Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, and Donald Trump.

Other Factors in Cruz’s Favor

In addition to a strong grassroots and establishment appeal as illustrated by his diverse fundraising, Cruz also has high marks when the Republican base is asked if they view him favorably or unfavorably. He ranks fourth in an average of national polls, with +33 points, behind Carson (+62) and Rubio (+48) but ahead of Jeb Bush (+24) and Donald Trump (+15).

In Public Policy Polling’s most recent Iowa poll, Cruz has risen to third place from 8 percent in mid-September to 14 percent in November. His favorability in Iowa has also improved. In mid-September, 51 percent liked Cruz while 23 percent disliked him. This month, 62 percent said they had a favorable impression, and only 16 percent had an unfavorable one. Only Carson had higher favorability ratings.

Cruz also ranks highly among Republican activists, according to a Huffington Post/YouGov survey. Cruz comes in second among activists’ top choice for president, behind only Trump. His favorability among this group (+53 percent) also beats that of Trump (+19 percent) by a wide margin.

Cruz doesn’t just have a strong fundraising acumen -- he also knows how to hold on to his money. As of September 30, Cruz had the most cash on hand of any GOP candidate -- $13.5 million. The presidential race is a long jog, not a sprint, and Cruz seems to be running at the right long-term pace. Only Rubio shares this ability to hold onto his money, and the Florida senator has raised less.

While the Republican nomination process typically favors more moderate/liberal Republicans like John McCain and Mitt Romney, this conservative firebrand has a strong game plan for primary states. Steve Deace, a pro-Cruz Iowa-based talk show host, recalled the Texas senator asking him to set up meetings with Iowa activists as early as August of 2013. Now, Cruz has “the best [Iowa] organization I’ve ever seen,” according to Deace, featuring many of the activists who propelled Rick Santorum to victory in 2012.

Nevertheless, the Texas Senator is not betting everything on early states like Iowa, another mistake of past presidential campaigns. Cruz has referred to the March 1 “SEC primary,” which features eight Southern states, as his “firewall” - the line of defense should he lose in the Iowa caucuses. While these states are not winner-take-all, a Cruz victory on March 1 would bolster his campaign going forward, right when other candidates start dropping out.

The third GOP debate with CNBC featured breakout moments for Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, but Cruz may be better suited than his Florida rival to win the nomination.