Des Moines, Iowa — Eleven months before Ted Cruz took the stage here at the state fairgrounds Monday night to celebrate an historic and hard-fought victory in Iowa’s caucuses, members of his senior staff dialed in to a conference call to discuss the question that had long confounded them: Where should Cruz launch his White House campaign?
It was the first week of March 2015, and Cruz’s candidacy-in-waiting needed a dose of strategic symbolism. The Texas senator had cemented his standing as a tea-party icon, but to be a serious presidential contender, his team recognized he would have to expand his appeal.
The previous fall, Cruz had begun sharing the story of his father, Rafael. When Ted was just three, Rafael Cruz, then struggling with alcoholism, had abandoned his family, only to find God and return home to them months later. The elder Cruz had long since become a minister, and from the moment his son began to mull a White House run, had served as his most important ally and surrogate.
The Texas senator, eyeing 2016, understood the imperative of establishing his Evangelical bona fides. He envisioned marrying the GOP’s anti-establishment and religious wings as part of a broader movement, one that could position Cruz not only to win Iowa — a state where 2012 entrance polls showed a majority of GOP caucus-goers identifying both as tea-partiers and as Evangelicals — but to claim the conservative mantle and ultimately defeat a more moderate Republican opponent.
Cruz couldn’t launch his campaign in Iowa, however — that would make his intentions too obvious, campaign manager Jeff Roe warned. So they discussed other options: Cruz’s hometown of Houston; historical sites around Texas; even the Reagan Library in California. As the call dragged on, Aaron Baker, Roe’s employee at Axiom Strategies in Missouri, had an idea. An Evangelical Christian himself, Baker was on the line only to take notes for a colleague on maternity leave. But he felt compelled to send his boss an e-mail: “You should do it at Liberty.”
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Roe blurted out Baker’s suggestion and the line exploded with opinions. Most were positive. Liberty, founded by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell in 1971, required students to attend convocation, giving Cruz a built-in audience of enthusiastic young people. But there was risk involved in launching at a university so associated with the “moral majority.” Some staffers argued that it would narrow Cruz’s appeal, backing him into a corner and forcing him to go all-in on Iowa.
The debate didn’t last long. Later that day, Rick Tyler, Cruz’s national spokesman, called Falwell’s son, now the school’s president, to inquire about scheduling. Falwell’s response was swift: Terry McAuliffe had been slated to speak on the Cruz camp’s preferred day, March 23, but he’d bump the Virginia governor to accommodate them.
Cruz’s victory here cannot be explained solely by his simultaneous appeal to Christians and tea partiers.
The campaign had already chosen to announce first. Rumors swirled that Kentucky senator Rand Paul and Florida senator Marco Rubio were planning their campaign launches in early April, and despite not yet having a venue, the Cruz team decided in a late February meeting to preempt them. “Speed kills,” says Cruz’s senior strategist, Jason Johnson.
And so, a few weeks later, with little time for logistical planning, Cruz took the stage at Liberty, sharing the story of his faith, his conservatism, and his calling to run for president with a televangelist’s flair. “God has blessed America from the very beginning of this nation,” Cruz said, “and I believe God isn’t done with America yet.”
Today, one can easily trace Cruz’s path from that March 23 announcement in Virginia to his February 1 victory in Iowa. For one thing, the dicey decision to rush Cruz’s takeoff yielded a media windfall: He enjoyed two weeks of what his campaign called “clean air,” the uninterrupted coverage that came with being first out of the gate.
“We wanted to do something unexpected, and it really worked, because there was a pent-up demand or a pent-up desire for the press to start covering this race,” Tyler explains. “We were the only declared candidate for almost two weeks, and lucky for us, there really were no competing media stories in that whole time.”
More important in the long term, launching at Liberty created an echo throughout the Evangelical world. It was the first step toward crafting Cruz’s image as a divinely inspired warrior fighting a two-front battle against cultural secularism and big government. Monday’s entrance polling shows how it secured Cruz’s victory: He won a plurality, 33 percent, of the 62 percent of caucus-goers who identified as Evangelical Christians; and an even bigger plurality, 43 percent, of the 40 percent who described their political philosophy as “very conservative.”
Yet Cruz’s victory here cannot be explained solely by his simultaneous appeal to Christians and tea partiers. Rather, his triumph resulted from identifying those voters, relentlessly pursuing them, ridding the campaign of rivals for their support, and surviving a vicious home stretch in which a convergence of opposing forces attempted to steal what his team felt was rightfully theirs.
On a sunny Saturday morning in January 2015, one year before he would find himself deadlocked with Donald Trump in Iowa, Cruz arrived in the state as a decided underdog. Like a chorus of other 2016 aspirants, he had come to speak at an event hosted by Citizens United and Representative Steve King. Cruz and King, an immigration hardliner who could help him woo tea-partiers statewide, were known to be friends. But conventional wisdom held that Cruz couldn’t hope to win many Evangelical Iowans, because the competition was just too stiff: It already included two former winners of the caucuses, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, the neurosurgeon-turned-grassroots-hero Ben Carson, and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who stole the show that day with a speech that instantly vaulted him to the top of the polls.
Cruz wasn’t there just to give a speech, however; he and his team were on a recruiting trip. When he concluded his remarks that afternoon, he asked audience members to text “Constitution” to a special number. The auditorium sparkled with screens as his campaign collected phone numbers from over 1,000 Iowans. Two months before his launch, Cruz had unofficially begun campaigning in a state that, because of its conservative reputation and its place on the primary calendar, could ultimately deliver a verdict on his candidacy.
“It’s never been my belief that we had to win any individual state in the first month — but that we do have to win one,” Johnson says. “And it just so happens that Iowa is the first.”
As Cruz spoke that day, his brain trust — Roe, Johnson, and communications adviser Jason Miller — were fanned out across Des Moines. The three had met earlier in the week at Roe’s office in Kansas City for a strategy session before road tripping three hours north to meet the boss. Having spent the previous two weeks making calls to Iowa’s Evangelical leaders in search of a state director for their campaign-in-waiting, Roe and Johnson spent Saturday afternoon at the downtown Marriott, meeting with prospective candidates.
“We were looking for activists who could manage, more than operatives that could become activists,” Roe says.
‘It’s never been my belief that we had to win any individual state in the first month — but that we do have to win one,’ Johnson says. ‘And it just so happens that Iowa is the first.’
One of the people aiding their search was Bryan English, a communications veteran with deep ties to the state’s faith community. But Cruz and his team soon began eyeing English himself. “I had been kind of trying to help them find somebody else, and they kept asking me if I would give it some thought,” English says.
English had worked for the Christian group The Family Leader under Bob Vander Plaats, and prior to that for King’s congressional office, giving him direct access to the two influential Iowans whose support Cruz coveted most. “I think there’s only two endorsements that matter in Iowa, and that’s King and Vander Plaats, because I think they’re the only two people that put organization on the ground for you when they endorse,” says Steve Deace, a conservative radio host who himself endorsed Cruz. “Their rolodexes are going to help save you some shoe leather and get you ahead in the game.”
English had a rolodex of his own. He’d cultivated close relationships with Christian activists across the state, before disappearing from the political scene in recent years, convinced that Republican politicians were selling out their party and their voters. “I had become disillusioned like so many people in this country, and felt like every time I invested myself, felt like we just kept getting burned,” English says. But as a former Baptist minister who had preached about “civic involvement,” he felt compelled to get back in the game after Cruz and his team convinced him it was worth the time away from his family. “It’s not enough to read the Bible,” he says. “You gotta put what you’re learning into action.”
By the time English was formally hired in early March, Cruz and his brain trust had sketched a blueprint for winning Iowa. The campaign would be a grassroots movement, and they quickly got to work recruiting volunteers and building relationships with key constituencies across the state. Though Cruz was not interested in copying the last two GOP caucus winners — both Santorum and Huckabee ran disorganized, under-funded campaigns — he recognized that both had proven the upside of relentless retail campaigning. And so his team planned multiple bus tours to ensure that he would visit all of the state’s 99 counties, just as Santorum and Huckabee had done in the past.
The campaign wanted Cruz on the ground early and often, and in front of as many people as possible.
“The aggressiveness with which he campaigned — visiting all 99 counties, making it personal, doing the retail politics — it just became very obvious as he was building momentum that it was being built the old-fashioned way,” Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Iowa Republican party, says of Cruz. “It was what you think of when you think of the Iowa caucus. He was aggressive with volunteers, aggressive with his organization, aggressive with his visits to the state.”
The campaign wanted Cruz on the ground early and often, and in front of as many people as possible. Not only did they need their candidate to see and be seen, they needed Iowans to look beyond the caricature of a reckless conservative brawler.
“From the moment he arrived in the Senate, there’s been a very intense opinion about who is the guy, Ted Cruz, that is the polar opposite of the opinion of the people whose opinion really matters,” Johnson says. “So we knew we needed to spend a lot of time in the state actually interacting with voters.”
Even while emphasizing a bottom-up campaign, Cruz’s team worked simultaneously from the top down. That meant attracting influencers to spread his message and mobilize support. So they got to work in March setting up dozens of meetings with pastors, some of whom Cruz had previously visited along with his minister father. The campaign set an early, ambitious goal of recruiting 99 pastors in 99 counties, hoping to give Cruz an organizational foothold in religious communities statewide.
Then, of course, there were the two biggest targets: King and Vander Plaats. Cruz courted both men ceaselessly — King with steak dinners in D.C. and pheasant hunting in Iowa, Vander Plaats with visits and phone conversations and requests for prayer. Both would eventually throw their support to Cruz, but even before it became official they had plugged him into their networks, convinced that he was the consensus conservative they’d been waiting for.
If Deace brought English into the Cruz fold, it was English who helped win over King, his former boss. “In the early days of the campaign, every time I saw him I would ask him . . . for the endorsement,” he says.
Even while emphasizing a bottom-up campaign, Cruz’s team worked simultaneously from the top down.
Also critical to winning the support of those two men and that of other influential conservatives was making the case that Cruz, unlike other Christian conservatives such as Santorum and Huckabee, could actually win the nomination. “We were very transparent about our actual campaign plan,” says Johnson. The campaign’s proven fundraising ability was an important selling point: With the exception of Jeb Bush, no one had raised more in the first quarter of 2015. Just as important, they showed restraint in spending it. “When we were able to sit down and talk with opinion leaders and influencers, they saw that and they recognized that,” Johnson says.
Cruz was aiming for something unprecedented in the Hawkeye State: a “coalition of disparate interests and ideologies, the adhesive of which is their anti-establishment bent,” says former Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn. King, a tea-partier, and Vander Plaats, a faith leader, have long occupied warring spaces in the state’s Republican power structure. Strawn points to Cruz’s uniting them as a validation of his skill and strategy. “He had a real understanding of Iowa’s intra-party politics, enough so to bring together a diverse anti-establishment coalition.”
Having studied Barack Obama’s winning playbook from 2008, Cruz, Roe, and their team decided to aim their campaign directly at the base: white men, evangelicals, blue-collar workers, self-identified tea-partiers, and “very conservative” Republicans. At the heart of this strategy was Cruz himself, a consummate political junkie and Bush 2000 staffer with a love for the nuts and bolts of campaigns. His staffers warn him against doing his “Karl Rove routine” with reporters, but unlike many candidates who harm their own pursuits by pontificating about strategy, Cruz is a disciplined messenger, and allies say he has struck a balance between debating ideas and delegating campaign duties.
Scott Walker presented the first strategic challenge to beset the Cruz campaign, and it was Cruz who recognized the threat. Having convened his team in Washington for a strategy session, he told them Walker was “renting our voters in Iowa.” They could and should win those voters, Cruz warned, but they needed to start competing vigorously in the state before Walker vacuumed them up. He proved correct: As Cruz’s team intensified its engagement on the ground, they grew alarmed at how often Walker was beating them to the punch.
When Cruz “started doing routine trips here,” Roe says, the campaign reached out to potential supporters around the state — legislators, local officials, and key activists. “Every single endorsement here, it was always coming down to us and him. Like, painfully, us and him,” Roe says of Walker. “We were fighting tooth and nail with him.”
Walker was the first of Cruz’s rivals to exit the race. Some of his support went to Marco Rubio and some to Jeb Bush. But many of the Wisconsin governor’s Iowa backers surprised their peers by signing on with Cruz. “I had a private conversation with a county official who was part of Walker’s team — pretty much a solid conservative, a Branstad-Grassley Republican,” Strawn says. “When I asked what he’d do, and he said Cruz, it just spoke to the breadth of the coalition he was building.”
Cruz is a disciplined messenger, and allies say he has struck a balance between debating ideas and delegating campaign duties.
As summer turned to fall, two other candidates once poised to compete with Cruz for conservatives’ support — Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry — felt their oxygen being consumed by the Texas senator. Perry, who later endorsed Cruz, dropped out in mid September, followed by Jindal two months later. Slowly but surely, Cruz was clearing the path toward what had once seemed impossible: uniting Iowa’s conservative base.
Other obstacles remained, at least on paper.
Rand Paul figured to inherit much of his father’s libertarian support, which had propelled him to a strong third-place finish in the 2012 caucuses. So Cruz mimicked Paul’s votes on issues such as surveillance and budgeting, and courted the “liberty” activists in Iowa whom Paul’s campaign had taken for granted. By midsummer, Cruz’s internal polls showed him beating his Senate colleague among Iowa’s libertarians. Paul would never again pose a threat.
Meanwhile, Cruz had suffocated Huckabee and Santorum by launching his campaign early, aiming it directly at their supporters, and making a priority of locking up endorsements from their most prominent former backers in Iowa and nationally, knowing that major defections from the past Iowa winners would undermine their viability.
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Santorum finished eleventh out of twelve candidates Monday night, with just 1 percent of the vote. Huckabee garnered 1.8 percent, and dropped out moments after Cruz’s victory was announced. His organization was visibly lacking all night. He had no representative at a well-attended precinct in the Des Moines suburb of Waukee, and at another nearby precinct, in Urbandale, the gentleman who rose to speak on Huckabee’s behalf identified himself as a personal friend of the governor’s. (He said that while he wouldn’t be casting his vote for Huckabee, he could promise that his friend was a good man.)
Carson surged after the inaugural August 6 debate in Cleveland and stayed near the top of the Iowa polls for several months. But the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, combined with Carson’s disconcerting commentary on international affairs, led to a swift decline in his numbers. By December, he had plummeted to the low teens, and finished fourth in Iowa with less than 10 percent of the vote.
There was still one barrier between Cruz and an Iowa victory: Donald Trump.
Cruz’s approach to Trump’s candidacy was plain from the outset: flatter the reality-TV star and remain indifferent even to his most provocative claims. His team feared that attacks on Trump, or any other rival, “could be viewed as an attack upon that candidate’s supporters,” Johnson says. Trump was bringing to the fore issues that Cruz felt were in his wheelhouse — such as illegal immigration and government incompetence — and was effectively priming the electorate to accept an outsider as the eventual Republican nominee. Cruz felt confident that while the front-runner was energizing base voters, he wouldn’t ultimately win them over. So he stayed in Trump’s wake, banking on what he told allies would be a “natural transition” to his camp once conservatives determined that they liked Trump’s message but not the messenger.
There was another strategic reason that Cruz spent the first six months of Trump’s candidacy refusing to attack him: He was certain Bush would do it for him. Cruz and his team had long been convinced that because Bush needed to win New Hampshire — where Trump polls the strongest and where he is best organized — the former Florida governor would “go nuclear” on the billionaire real-estate mogul with the help of his super PAC’s $100 million war chest. In turn, Cruz’s team predicted, Trump would “go nuclear” on Bush, damaging both an anti-establishment threat and the man whom Cruz’s camp once projected to emerge from the establishment lane as his chief rival for the nomination.
By early December, as Cruz pulled even with Trump in Iowa polls, it became apparent that the détente between the two men wouldn’t last.
But that conflict never materialized, and by early December, as Cruz pulled even with Trump in Iowa polls, it became apparent that the détente between the two men wouldn’t last. They seemed certain to lock horns at the December 15 debate in Las Vegas, before which Cruz had questioned Trump’s “judgment” and Trump had criticized Cruz’s “temperament” in turn. Yet Cruz refused chances to knock Trump on stage, and when Trump was asked about his comments, he slapped Cruz on the back and said, “I have gotten to know him over the last three or four days. He has a wonderful temperament.”
It was the high-water mark of Cruz’s campaign. He had rocketed to the top of several Iowa polls in the days before the debate, notching a 10-point lead over Trump, 31 percent to 21 percent, in the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics survey. Having expected — and then avoided — a bloody exchange with Trump, Cruz was jubilant. Thirty-six hours after the debate, in an interview with National Review, Cruz predicted that the GOP primary would boil down to a familiar choice between a conservative Iowa winner and a moderate New Hampshire winner. “I believe I will be that conservative candidate,” Cruz said.
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His swagger filtered down through the campaign; reporters in Las Vegas noted the celebratory tone in the Cruz camp. And in the days before Christmas, the gifts kept coming. A parody ad in which Cruz reads fake bedtime stories to his young daughters (“How Obamacare Stole Christmas”) went viral, which prompted the Washington Post to run a cartoon depicting his girls as dancing monkeys, sparking controversy and wall-to-wall coverage of Cruz’s ascendant campaign.
“We call it ‘The Full Trump,” Roe says. “We have three TVs on [the three cable networks] at the campaign office, and Trump’s typically on all three at once. We had The Full Trump for days around Christmas.”
It was apparent that Cruz suddenly sat in the driver’s seat, with his numbers heading north and his chief rival refusing to attack him. But there were still six weeks until the Iowa caucuses. Wasn’t Cruz afraid of peaking too early? “No,” he told NR, as we drove through the Las Vegas suburbs in the backseat of a rented Ford Expedition. “I don’t believe we have peaked.”
In fact, he had. Cruz’s numbers declined steadily in the six weeks that followed, and he would never again break 30 percent in any reputable poll of Iowa. (He won the caucuses with 27.7 percent of the vote.) The downturn culminated with the much-anticipated Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll released two days before the caucuses, which showed Trump leading with 28 percent to Cruz’s 23 percent — a net swing of 15 points from six weeks earlier. Even worse, Cruz’s net favorability had dropped 20 points since the beginning of January.
What happened? In short, Cruz’s opponents had come to the same conclusion he had: that he was suddenly the Iowa favorite. As Cruz jetted home to Houston for a brief Christmas break with his wife and daughters, his opponents were sharpening their knives in preparation for what may go down as the most bruising home stretch ever endured by an Iowa winner.
Cruz’s opponents were sharpening their knives in preparation for what may go down as the most bruising home stretch ever endured by an Iowa winner.
The all-out assault on Cruz began in earnest with Trump’s comments to the Washington Post on January 5, in which he questioned Cruz’s eligibility to become president due to his Canadian birth. Cruz was initially dismissive of the charge, but it quickly found its way into the bloodstream. Pundits rambled about it on cable shows and voters asked him for explanations.
All the while, Cruz’s bus was shadowed through the state by another vehicle: an RV owned by America’s Renewable Future, a group targeting his opposition to ethanol subsidies. This, too, Cruz and company tried to dismiss. But the trouble was just beginning.
On January 13, the New York Times reported that Cruz had not disclosed loans from CitiBank and Goldman Sachs — where his wife, Heidi, works — that helped fund his 2012 Senate race. Cruz’s campaign called it an “inadvertent” paperwork error. But opponents smelled blood in the water and pounced on the chance to expose Cruz, the self-styled populist hero, as a privileged insider. The situation already looked bad for Cruz, and it was about to get worse.
Six days later, news broke that Sarah Palin, the one-time vice-presidential nominee and tea-party darling, was flying to Iowa to endorse Trump. That same day, January 19, Iowa governor Terry Branstad told reporters at an energy summit here that Cruz “hasn’t supported renewable fuels, and I think it would be a big mistake for Iowa to support him.” Political veterans around the state were stunned. Even though Branstad’s son works for America’s Renewable Future — a fact Cruz allies pointed to as an obvious explanation for the remark — he is known for promoting neutrality in the process and welcoming all candidates to his state.
Cruz’s lieutenants told him that things were okay — that while Palin’s announcement stung, Branstad was unpopular among Iowa conservatives and had done them a favor. But blood was in the water. In a Des Moines watering hole that afternoon, two GOP campaign veterans sat discussing the dual developments. “This is Ted Cruz’s worst day of the campaign,” one said. “He’s getting it from both sides — the establishment and the Tea Party hitting him at the same time.” For good measure, Cruz came under attack from Evangelicals a day later, when BuzzFeed published a story alleging that he tithed nowhere close to the Biblical 10 percent rate. The report inspired a pro-Huckabee group to run a TV ad in Iowa days later labeling Cruz a “phony” Christian.
Just as the waters had calmed, Trump decided to skip the January 28 debate in Des Moines, citing a feud with Fox News’s Megyn Kelly. Whatever his reasoning, Trump’s maneuver had the effect of putting Cruz in the middle of the stage, subject to two hours of attacks from all sides. The next day’s Des Moines Register led with a headline that summed up the weeks of carnage: “ROUGH NIGHT FOR CRUZ.”
None of this came as a surprise to the candidate himself, who had cautioned his team to expect a wave of attacks once he surged in Iowa. “Ted talked about that for a long time, that if we get up in early January we’re going to be taking all kinds of shots the rest of the way,” King says. “It’s a game of political king of the hill. If you’re on top, everybody is taking shots at you and trying to drag you down.”
Having anticipated such a storm, Cruz’s team was equipped to weather it.
The din was thought-deafening inside Cruz’s Iowa headquarters on the Friday before the caucuses. Carved out of a strip mall in the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale, the office was a hive of activity. More than 50 people were on phones, calling Iowans to answer questions they had about Cruz and the caucus process, and ultimately to ask for their support. Tables were lined with soda cans and snack wrappers. Volunteers sat at desks below signs that read, “WHEN MAKING CALLS: Please stay on script! Avoid the temptation to comment on other candidates.” Most of the callers were from out of state, many of them Texans. (Iowa volunteers were more commonly tasked with “walking,” or knocking on doors.) They came here to volunteer, compensated only with a dormitory bed at “Camp Cruz,” where they would retire after twelve-hour days spent reading from sheets that read, “Ethanol Talking Points” and “Day One Script.”
One such volunteer was Jerry Dunleavy, a 28-year-old wearing a baseball cap and a bushy red beard. With no campaign experience, Dunleavy found himself inspired by Cruz’s message and arguing the candidate’s case to his friends and co-workers. The week before Christmas, he quit his job at a child-support–enforcement agency in Ohio, packed his car, and drove to Iowa to help the Cruz campaign. “No candidate has ever brought me to this point,” he said, half-shouting to be heard. (Cruz thanked Dunleavy by name in his victory speech Monday night.)
The scope and strength of Cruz’s ground operation, more than an effective insulator against attacks, was a predictor of participation.
Looking out at his “army,” Roe pointed to the likes of Dunleavy when asked two key questions: Did Cruz peak too soon? And how could his candidate hope to survive the final month’s onslaught? “Whoever’s going to win this campaign is going to have their moment of scrutiny. It’s discovery, scrutiny, decline. Every candidate is going to go through that,” Roe said. “It’s all about how you take the punch, how you handle the decline. . . . So if you’re asking whether I’d rather have it in late December or early January, or during the course of voting season? I’ll take it when we took it. . . . I want it to happen when I have 12,000 volunteers in Iowa, when we had 1,488 precincts covered by 3,100 people.”
Roe, trying not to grin, added: “We’ve got more volunteers than people have votes.”
“He had his organization already essentially built at the time those critiques came,” Kaufmann, the state party chair, agrees. “And that helped him withstand it. Had those critiques come a month-and-a-half earlier, would it have hurt him more? Probably.”
The scope and strength of Cruz’s ground operation, more than an effective insulator against attacks, was a predictor of participation. Cruz’s team spent nearly a year building hundreds of models of Iowa’s Republican electorate, identifying the universe of likely voters, and engaging them systematically and personally. Cruz’s volunteers across the state carried specialized “caucus books” for their precincts. Each book contained “everybody’s names who are voting for us in it, and then everybody’s names of who they’re choosing between, and what issue they care about, and how to communicate with them about it,” Roe explains.
“This has never been done on our side of the aisle,” he adds. “Knowing the issue they care about, knowing how to talk to them, and knowing who they’re choosing between? It’s just never been done.” By contrast, Republicans here pointed to Trump’s campaign having few volunteers, and employing only a handful of paid staffers to contact voters about whom they have little information.
This immeasurable organizational advantage lent a degree of empirical assurance to Cruz in Iowa’s closing days. Even as his numbers continued to slip, and as the damaging headlines kept coming, and as the candidate himself seemed rattled and veered uncharacteristically off-script on several occasions, Cruz and his core group remained confident. Unlike Trump, whose supporters by and large were not experienced caucus-goers, Cruz’s team thought they had a sense of who was going to show up for him, where, and in what numbers.
Turnout in Monday’s caucuses exceeded 186,000, shattering even the wildest pre-campaign projections.
“The biggest question going into caucus, particularly with the presence of Donald Trump, is, ‘What’s turnout’?” Johnson says. “So, roughly, 121,900 has been the highest to date, so what we did, daily, in the days leading up to the caucus — not just days, months — is, have a team of data scientists running the probability scores on each individual potential voter and their probability of showing up to the caucuses. And there were always different estimates but our belief going into the caucus was that turnout would be roughly in the neighborhood of 131,000 to 135,000.” The Cruz team had modeled the Iowa electorate hundreds of different ways, but only up to a maximum turnout of 175,000. On the eve of the caucuses, his top lieutenants acknowledged that anything higher than that likely ensured a Trump victory.
They were wrong. Turnout in Monday’s caucuses exceeded 186,000, shattering even the wildest pre-campaign projections. But in a related surprise, the notion that first-time caucus-goers would be turning out overwhelmingly for Trump proved false. According to entrance polls, the celebrity-turned-candidate won a plurality, 31 percent, of the 46 percent of GOP voters who were caucusing for the first time. But it was hardly a blowout: Cruz took 22 percent of that group, and Rubio took 21 percent, en route to a much-tighter-than-expected third-place finish behind Trump.
Cruz’s team had set an impossibly high “hard” vote goal, one that would allow them to win Iowa no matter what the turnout level. Some of Cruz’s most bullish allies believed it was unattainable. And yet Monday night their campaign blasted past it, and ultimately won more than 51,000 votes, by far the highest total in the history of the state’s Republican caucuses.
The Cruz campaign swore there would be no champagne-popping Monday night if they won. It was the outcome they expected, the one they’d promised beforehand. Their focus was on winning the White House, not just Iowa, and the candidate and his staffers would conduct themselves accordingly.
So much for that. In a steel-framed pavilion at the Iowa state fairgrounds, hundreds of red-and-blue-clad Cruz supporters waved “Choose Cruz” signs and chanted “Ted! Ted! Ted!” When Cruz took the stage, rather than give a quick thanks-but-we’ve-got-more-work-to-do speech, he delivered a stem-winder so long that multiple cable networks cut away from it before he was done. In what was equal parts a pep talk and an end-zone dance, Cruz praised his supporters’ ferocity and pummeled the media and political establishment that he accused of writing him off. Even more striking, he previewed portions of a speech he said he would give when accepting the Republican nomination this summer in Cleveland.
#related#It was immediately criticized as over the top. But the ecstasy of the moment was understandable. It’s a rarity in presidential politics to peak, fall, and peak again. And yet Cruz did precisely that, prevailing in a state he badly wanted to win — one his campaign had tailored its strategy around from Day One — thanks to an organization and ground game that insulated him from an absolutely brutal home stretch.
“What’s going to be missed about this,” Roe says of Cruz’s Iowa victory, is that “he had to take on a billionaire, the governor of the state, Bob Dole, Trent Lott, Rudy Giuliani, $8.5 million spent by nine candidates, hits from every candidate in the field besides Jeb Bush. And nobody’s had to do that. No winner of the Iowa caucus has had to do that.”
Cruz’s team, buoyant but bleary-eyed Monday night, might have been tempted to elaborate on these grievances — to dress down their many detractors and celebrate their electoral superiority. But there was no time. Their plane was headed to New Hampshire at midnight.
— Tim Alberta is the chief political correspondent for National Review. Eliana Johnson is the Washington editor of National Review.