For Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, a mediocre showing in the August 8 Iowa Straw Poll would be a troubling rattle in the engine right at the moment the car needs to accelerate.
The straw poll doesn’t assign any delegates, and a lot of past straw-poll winners have flopped in the subsequent Iowa GOP caucuses. But the heavily conservative straw-poll crowd — the kind that preferred Michele Bachmann four years ago — should be a target-rich environment for an outspoken, pugnacious conservative like Cruz.
At the straw poll, “there’s a natural advantage for someone like Cruz,” says Craig Robinson, the former political director of the Iowa Republican party. “He appeals to that conservative activist [for whom] it’s easier to take a day out of their schedule and go, compared to a general Republican . . . ”
The straw poll will be a key measuring stick for Cruz, a test of whether he really has the appeal he’s aiming to achieve, according to Matt Strawn, who served as Iowa GOP chair from 2009 to 2012.
‘If they’re willing to drive to the middle of a cornfield in the middle of August, you know that’s somebody you can count on to stand up for you on a snowy February night.’
“As a candidate who’s trying to unite the clans, so to speak, of the ideological Right here, I would suggest there’s no better place to start that than in Boone on August 8,” says Strawn. “It would be the first test for him to prove that he is making inroads with those key activists. That’s what’s great about the straw poll. If they’re willing to drive to the middle of a cornfield in the middle of August, you know that’s somebody you can count on to stand up for you on a snowy February night.”
Yet, for now, the Texas senator’s camp won’t even confirm they’ll be competing in the straw poll. When asked if Cruz would participate, Brian Phillips, a senior adviser to the candidate’s PAC, says in a statement, “we don’t have anything to share regarding the straw poll at this point.”
If Cruz were to suddenly decide he didn’t want to seriously compete at the Boone contest on August 8, it would mark an inexplicably abrupt disinterest in Iowa GOP political gatherings. Since the beginning of 2013, Cruz has visited Iowa 12 times over a total of 16 days, second only to Rick Perry and Rick Santorum. Many in the media perceived Cruz’s campaign-announcement speech at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., as a direct pitch to the Evangelical Christians who make up more than half of Iowa-GOP caucusgoers, according to a 2012 entrance poll conducted by Edison Research for the Associated Press.
At this point, no GOP contender is willing to definitively commit to competing in the straw poll — in part because they want to see which rivals will join Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham in skipping the event.
“Everybody’s eyeing each other across the dance floor,” says Charlie Szold, communications director for the Republican party of Iowa. “Pretty soon, somebody’s going to jump in.”
Despite the visits and efforts, Cruz is currently polling sixth in the crowded field — not a terrible spot in a race likely to have more than a dozen candidates, but a finish that would probably be a serious disappointment on caucus night.
“He’s not standing out quite as much as maybe we thought he might,” says Tim Hagle, associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa. “He’s got a good personal story and he’s got strong policy positions, but there are several other candidates who also have good personal stories and they’re also strong on the issues. It’s a matter of doing that kind of grassroots organizing that’s necessary, and I think he’s been lagging behind a little bit in that regard, compared to some of the other candidates.”
“Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and Ted Cruz, maybe Scott Walker and Rick Perry, get into the mix for the support of the state’s social conservatives,” Robinson notes. “If you’re competing for that group of supporters, you want to do things to consolidate that support early on. The straw poll is a great way to do that. It creates a deadline that people have to respond by. They force people to make a commitment at a certain time.”
One complicating factor for Cruz is that Iowa Republicans tend to reward time spent in the state; the 2012 winner, Santorum, visited all 99 counties, and he’s likely to do the same again this time. A senator with a day job may simply not be able to invest the same amount of time in the state as rivals who are 24/7 presidential candidates.
Robinson perceives the time commitments of the Senate as a scheduling disadvantage, but says it’s balanced out by the benefits of being a current officeholder.
“He is in the game, every day,” Robinson says. “Whatever’s going on in Washington, D.C., he can easily message about that. It’s easier to do it while you’re in the U.S. Senate than stomping your feet in the middle of a diner in Iowa. How many people are going to hear that?”
Ted Cruz may not need to win the Iowa caucuses, but he can’t afford to flop there or get lost in the middle of the pack. While the stakes of the straw poll are smaller, it’s hard to see how a sagging finish wouldn’t damage the perception of him as a serious player in the state.
And if Cruz doesn’t do well in Iowa, one wonders how long he can hang on.
“I would think that he would have a warmer reception in Iowa than he necessarily might in New Hampshire,” Hagle says. “I can’t imagine he would want to wait until South Carolina to make his move.”
— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.