It's taken a while for the chattering classes to come around to the idea that Donald Trump may actually pull this thing off. It's hard to blame them. It's as if we all went to sleep one night and woke up in an alternate universe. But they do seem to have accepted it. He came close to winning Iowa, a notoriously buttoned up electorate, and won decisively in New Hampshire. All the polling going forward looks good. It's just become impossible to deny it any longer.
But what about his nemesis Ted Cruz? Are they ready to accept that he is likely to be the last man standing who can stop Trump? Until yesterday one would have had to say no. With South Carolina governor Nikki Haley's dagger to Jeb Bush's heart (her endorsement of Marco Rubio), the whole universe of political pundits were ready to call the number two slot for the Florida Senator. There seems to be a very deep desire to see this boyish neoconservative hawk survive despite his somewhat bizarre personality tics. (In this primary race, it's conventional political rhetoric that's the kiss of death.)
But at the end of the day, some new numbers came out that electrified the political press corps and changed the conversation once again:
There are a number of other polls which still show Trump at number one and some explanatory data about that NBC/WSJ poll which shows that they may have sampled more self-identified "very conservative" voters. Nonetheless this was big news just three days out from the South Carolina primary where the latest polling shows Trump in the lead and Cruz and Rubio vying for second place.
NBC's Hallie Jackson interviewed Cruz about his surprise showing in the network's poll and he was obviously pleased as punch, enjoying his moment
Hallie Jackson: You're topping Donald Trump nationally. You are now beating Donald Trump nationally according to your new polling. What is that like for you? What's that moment like when you sort of see these numbers and you see what's happening?
Ted Cruz: It's tremendously encouraging ... To be leading the field nationally, I think as a result
Hallie Jackson: Did you ever think you'd be here?
Ted Cruz: That was always the plan. That's how you win. You've got to get to first place to win,. I think that is the result of a couple of things. On, I think it's the result of the breadth of support.
Actually, you don't need to get to first place in the vote in the Republican primary to win. As Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium explains, the Republicans turned their primary campaign into a Byzantine maze of varying rules and regulations in order to facilitate an easier path to victory for the establishment front runner. Unfortunately, that has resulted instead in a tilted playing field for Donald Trump to win with his 35% or so as long as he's got several people in competition. That pile-up in the establishment lane doesn't look to be clearing any time soon.
The fact remains that while Cruz may not be in first place anywhere but this one poll, he is still in the hunt and it's an interesting question as to why that is. After all, it's a matter of faith that nobody can stand him. I have written before about his brains and work ethic mitigating that liability. He also has a sophisticated southern strategy that's about to get its first test on Saturday when South Carolina voters go to the polls. The Cruz campaign has taken on the feel of a religious mission. Following the strong data driven tactics of Iowa and relying on its "Camp Cruz" evangelical volunteers, he believes that he can grind out a win in Southern Carolina and ride the momentum through the March 1st states with a superior grand game and sheer will.
Eliana Johnson at National Review went inside the campaign:
At around 8:40 a.m. on Monday, the volunteers emerge from their rooms, line up against the walls, and put their hands on each other’s shoulders to form a chain that runs the length of the hallway. Handmade signs line the walls. One reads: “Conservatives, Christians, and GRASSROOTS MATTER!”
This is Value Place, an extended-stay hotel just off Interstate 385 in Simpsonville, S.C. Until the Palmetto State’s primary concludes Saturday night, it is also Camp Cruz, home to those who have flocked here to volunteer their time for Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign. Right now, they’re packed three to a room. I ask if roommates knew each other beforehand. “No, but they do now, very well,” says Mark Hayes, a retired chief financial officer who’s running the show here along with his wife, Nancy, a veteran of 19 Republican campaigns who also works for Joe the Plumber of “spread the wealth around” fame.
At Iowa’s Camp Cruz, dozens of volunteers packed an old college dorm in the months leading up to the caucus, at times cramming extra mattresses into rooms already housing two people. When I stayed over on the eve of the caucus, five grown men vacated a room for me. In South Carolina, Cruz’s team is scaling up the data-driven ground operation that propelled it to victory in Iowa. The campaign’s Iowa state director, Bryan English, is on the ground here coordinating with key surrogates, and a second Camp Cruz location at a Quality Inn & Suites in Greenville opened its doors on Monday.
In 2012 evangelicals made up two thirds of the South Carolina primary electorate and the Tea Party remains a strong factor. This is Cruz's natural constituency and the assumption is that if he finishes strongly there it will give him the momentum he needs to march through the Southern states gathering delegates and momentum for the rest of the race. Conversely, if he fails there his modern targeting campaign will have been proven a bust and he may just collapse.
Cruz has been saying that he's bringing together the "Reagan coalition," which he defines as evangelicals, conservatives, Reagan Democrats and young people. But Reagan Democrats haven't existed for 30 years (we call them "Republicans" now) and there's little evidence that he's attracting young people any more than anyone else in the race. According to Johnson, the conservatives he's targeting are more aptly referred to as the "very" conservative, which do exist in large numbers in the south but not in the numbers Cruz is going to need. So there's a bit of wishful thinking in his plan.
As for evangelicals, it turns out that they are not a monolith either. It sounds very strange when Donald Trump, the thrice married libertine, says that he's attracting them, but he is. And this article by Kevin Cirrilli at Bloomberg explains why. Cruz appeals to the traditional old school evangelicals, Trump to the new school disco evangelicals:
With the state's primary just four days away, Trump is reaching out to new-school evangelicals, whose pastors become celebrities and best-selling authors and whose church choirs can rise to become chart-topping Christian pop-rock bands.
In new-school churches, altars are often replaced by elaborate stages with light shows that rival backdrops from American Idol performances. Holy water fountains are converted into jacuzzi-sized baptism pools. For the purveyors of this flashier packaging of Christianity, it's all part of an effort to shepherd disenfranchised Christians back to Jesus, much in the same way that Trump is able to convert his own celebrityhood and financial success into a political following that attracts first-time voters.
Of course Trump would appeal to the people who believe in "prosperity theology," which teaches that Christians who are aligned with God can also attain financial success. And that presents a major problem for Cruz who needs every evangelical he can get.
Johnson points out that Cruz modeled his campaign on an earlier southern strategy that vaulted an unknown and deeply mistrusted anti-establishment born-again candidate into the White House, a man with whom Ted Cruz would never want to be associated. It was Jimmy Carter:
The Camp Cruz phenomenon was inspired, ironically, by Jimmy Carter’s Peanut Brigade, a band of supporters who barnstormed the country on Carter’s behalf. Cruz fundraiser Paul Porter, a Florida real-estate investor, proposed the idea to campaign manager Jeff Roe on his first visit to Cruz’s Houston campaign headquarters last September. The idea, he says, is to take volunteers and “recruit them, lodge them, and organize them.”
(There are other similarities between the Cruz and Carter efforts: Like Carter, Cruz outworks his rivals on the campaign trail, and he faces massive resistance within his own party from what has come to be known as the “ABC” movement — Anybody But Cruz. In 1976, an effort with the same name was led by liberal Democrats looking to stop Carter.)
That strategy worked for Carter in 1976 and maybe it will work for Cruz in 2016. But Carter wasn't running against a charismatic television star with unlimited money at the time. That would come four years later. And he lost that one in a landslide.