It’s sometimes easy to forget that Ted Cruz is running for president. While other 2016 Republican candidates are out giving big speeches and attaching themselves to causes and making trips to Europe, Cruz has stayed relatively quiet, which is strange given that his animating purpose up to this point has been to loudly remind you that Ted Cruz exists. The biggest headlines Cruz has earned for himself lately were for a dumb joke he told about Joe Biden just after the vice president’s son died (Cruz quickly apologized).
That’s not to say he hasn’t been busy, though. Despite middling poll numbers and no shortage of people who despise him, Ted Cruz thinks he’s got the perfect plan to win the White House. As Politico reports this morning, “Ted Cruz is embracing a novel strategy for winning the nomination: He’s lowering expectations in the early states while investing in later-voting states that hardly see a candidate before March.” At the same time that he’s downplaying Iowa and New Hampshire, Cruz is talking in terms of a drawn-out delegate fight that will win him the nomination by virtue of attrition:
But Cruz’s team is bracing for a long fight based on picking up delegates — a battle they plan to stretch all the way to the convention, where, the theory goes, he’ll be the last conservative standing — though a contested convention hasn’t happened in nearly 40 years.
Politico calls this a “novel” strategy that “defies the usual wisdom – and historical precedent.” But Cruz’s plan isn’t quite so original. It’s actually a mash-up of two failed strategies from two recent failed Republican presidential candidates: Rudy Giuliani and Ron Paul.
While he exists now as a corrupt and cartoon-like political punchline, there was a brief period of time in which Rudy Giuliani was a well-regarded public figure. He was “America’s Mayor” or “Mayor of the World,” depending on who you asked. Rudy leaned on that image of post-9/11 tough-guy heroism to run for president in 2008, and quickly emerged as the popular and well-funded runaway favorite for the nomination. Then Republican voters got a close-up look at him and realized that he was relatively moderate, didn’t actually care about campaigning, and was very much a weirdo.
His support in the early states plummeted, and so Giuliani started telling reporters that his strategy all along was to forget about Iowa and New Hampshire and focus on Florida, where he planned to score a big win that would slingshot him to the nomination. He lost badly in all the early states, but kept insisting that his forthcoming Florida victory would set things right. That didn’t happen – Rudy finished third in Florida behind John McCain and Mitt Romney, then dropped out of the race. The problem with the Giuliani strategy was that when you lose contest after contest, it’s tough to convince people to stick with you, especially if your response is to downplay the significance of those losses. They’d rather be with someone who’s putting up victories and has “momentum,” not someone who’s making excuses for why more people aren’t supporting him.
As for the delegate fight, this was the longstanding dream of Ron Paul supporters who envisioned a guerilla campaign that would upset the establishment and tilt the nomination their way via a brokered convention. Ron Paul’s 2012 campaign manager said as much during an interview in March of that year, explaining how – like Ted Cruz now – they were going to fight in traditionally overlooked states like Texas and California and “stay in this race until he’s the nominee or another candidate has 1,444 bound delegates. We see a brokered convention situation as very likely.”
The problem here is the problem that bedeviled Paul: money. Running a long-slog campaign and fighting hard for every delegate is an expensive proposition. Moneybombs from Ron Paul’s base of fanatical devotees kept his lean campaign operation afloat, but he just couldn’t fight on the same level as other late-game candidates like Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. Cruz’s own fundraising operation seems to have some punch to it now, but the trick is making it last. It’s one thing to tell donors at the outset that you’re fighting to the finish, and quite another to convince them to stay on board while everyone else is defecting to the frontrunner’s camp.
“Our strategy is taking it to the convention,” Cruz’s political director told Politico, “which is why you’ve seen us announcing chairmen in California and New Jersey, as well as Iowa and New Hampshire.” Cruz’s campaign is banking on two assumptions: that Republican voters will rally behind a candidate who doesn’t win early, and that the party will forsake the convenience of coalescing behind a frontrunner in favor of a bruising delegate fight. Different candidates have tested these assumptions before and lost. Cruz seems to think the key to success is to test them both at the same time.