Is Ted Cruz the Real GOP Frontrunner?

Polls can be deceiving, but money talks. According to fundraising, Texas Senator Ted Cruz is the frontrunner in the GOP presidential race. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson have raked in the cash from big and small donors, respectively, but only Ted Cruz has both a strong and balanced appeal.

At this point in the presidential race, the money a candidate has raised, and from whom, may be a stronger indicator of longevity than his or her position in the “horse race” polls. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry had a rich super PAC, but his lack of grassroots support, which translated to an inability to raise money from small donors, killed his campaign. A majority of his former donors -- along with those of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker -- have flocked to Cruz.

Ted Cruz ranks second in overall GOP fundraising to Ben Carson, and second in total dollars (including super PACs) to Jeb Bush. His ratio of low-dollar to high-dollar donors is healthy, and despite his enmity with the Republican Party’s establishment, he has a surprisingly high number of endorsements from elected officials.

Fundraising Balance is Critical to Presidential Campaigns

Fundraising can be a strong indication of grassroots and established support. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has built an impressive grassroots machine, raking in $28.2 million in small-donor contributions of $200 or less, through September 30. Sanders will likely lose, however, because his ratio of small-donor money to large-donor ($2,000+) money is 40 to 1. Besides Obama (whose ratio was only 3 to 1), no nominee in the past four cycles has exceeded a 1 to 1 ratio this early in the campaign. Sanders’ lack of support among the established donor class will likely destroy him.

Similarly, Jeb Bush has raised $24 million, but his fundraising is also skewed - this time in favor of major donors. Jeb’s small-donor money to big-donor money ratio is 1 to 15. Even Mitt Romney’s ratio at this point in 2012 was more balanced, at 1 to 7.

At this point in the 2000 primary, then-Texas Governor George W. Bush had a small-to-large ratio of 1 to 12, but he also boasted a majority of major donors -- representing a united large-donor class. While George W. had 80 percent of major donors in 2000, Jeb only has 35 percent today -- the donor class is split. Also at this point in 2000, George W. had 19 percent of the small-dollar total -- essentially tied for first. Jeb has only 2.3 percent, ranking ninth.

As National Review’s Lawrence Britton wrote, “Since the dawn of the era of Internet campaigns, beginning in the 2000 election, no candidate in either party who was not, at this point in the election cycle, in the top two in grassroots fundraising has won the nomination, nor has any candidate outside the top three in major-donor funding.”

Real Estate mogul Donald Trump, with his largely-self-financed campaign, is a wild card in the GOP presidential race, but the establishment's fear and distrust of Trump virtually guarantees that Republican elites will do everything in their power to prevent him from securing the nomination.

Cruz ranks second to Carson in small-dollar fundraising, and second to Jeb Bush in big-donor funding. His position represents large grassroots support AND backing by the more established class -- a truly viable combination.

Next: Why Walker and Perry Donors Flock to Cruz

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.