There’s a slight whiff of desperation encircling Ted Cruz, like cologne from three days ago that he hasn’t washed off. At the beginning of January, he seemed to be ascendant in Iowa, having taken a four-point lead over Donald Trump in the polling averages. Iowa factors heavily into Cruz’s strategy – his message is designed to resonate with the state’s conservative and Christian voters, who are supposed to power him to a caucus victory and give him momentum that he can carry on to New Hampshire, South Carolina, and, at some point, the Republican presidential nomination. But he appears to have suffered an ill-timed dip in the polls while Trump has spiked – Cruz now trails the frontrunner by about six points in the averages with just a few days remaining until Iowa decides.
That probably explains why Cruz, after Trump announced he was pulling out of Thursday night's Fox News debate, leaped to challenge Trump to a one-on-one showdown. He very much wants to take a big ol’ bite out of the frontrunner, and Trump denied him the chance to do so on national TV. Cruz is trying to goad Trump into fighting him, calling him a coward and selling silly “Make Trump Debate Again” hats. Cruz’s financial backers, meanwhile, have gone down the morally odious road of promising to make a large donation to veterans groups, but only if Trump agrees to Cruz’s debate challenge. Trump, for his part, brushed away Cruz’s demands and poked fun at the Texas senator’s Canadian birth. His decision not to engage with Cruz was validated by new polling out from NBC this morning, which showed Trump taking a sizeable lead in Iowa while Cruz remains flat.
So what it is Cruz to do? Well, at this point has to trust that the infrastructure his campaign put in place in Iowa will succeed in turning out caucusgoers. As the Washington Post noted yesterday, Cruz is leading all the other candidates when it comes to voter outreach in Iowa, and has contacted roughly twice as many voters as Trump’s operation has. And Cruz’s campaign manager boasted to The Weekly Standard that their contacts are more meaningful than Trump’s, given their focus on “regular caucusgoers” as opposed to first-time participants.
At the same time, Cruz has to bet that Trump’s legions simply won’t show up on caucus day. It’s not the most far-fetched hope, given that no one really seems to know the specifics of Trump’s on-the-ground operation in the state, and what information exists suggests that it’s not especially robust. The Trump campaign in Iowa (and presumably elsewhere) relies primarily on Trump’s celebrity, his knack for earned media, and the massive rallies he puts together. But when it comes to actually getting people to the caucuses, the Trump strategy is dependent on supporters motivating themselves to turn out. As Monmouth University’s polling director put it, “Trump’s victory hinges on having a high number of self-motivated, lone wolf caucusgoers show up Monday night.” If his supporters don’t know when and where to caucus, or simply can’t be bothered to go, then he’ll be in a much weaker position than the polls suggest.
That’s what Cruz needs at this point, given his backsliding in the polls. And it will be interesting to see how he behaves at Thursday night's debate, given that he’ll be the one with the target on his back now that Trump has bowed out. Marco Rubio in particular will probably be itching to take him down, given his reported plans to use a “strong” third-place finish as a springboard into the New Hampshire primary.
All this adds up to Cruz being in a tough spot: he can’t really afford to come up short in Iowa, but to emerge from the state in a position of strength he has to fend off attacks from the rest of the field while motivating his own supporters while also banking on the frontrunner’s support being largely illusory.