Opinion

How Trump Outsmarted Cruz

[images via Getty & CNN screen shot]

Rich Danker Founder, Lone Star Committee

The results from South Carolina and Nevada reaffirm what should have been clear after February 9th in New Hampshire: Donald Trump is highly likely to be the GOP presidential nominee, and there’s nothing that’s been tried by his rivals so far that is going to change that.

Trump’s electoral appeal, shrewd instincts, and skill in shaping the debate are already well documented. But consider three things from Trump’s approach that stand out from his competitors’:

  1. He has a campaign theme
  2. He tries to win in every state
  3. He’s relentless on TV with his message

It’s worth making these contrasts to learn how Trump’s rivals, particularly Ted Cruz, have underperformed against him. Of the group, Cruz comes closest to having a campaign theme, but it’s an internal message about the nominating contest rather than an argument to become president: “I’m the consistent conservative in the race.”

Marco Rubio’s argument is a derivative of what the Republican establishment always uses: “I’m as conservative as anybody in the race, and I can beat Hillary Clinton.”

Trump’s theme – the one printed on those red hats – is the only theme designed to win the White House, not just the Republican primaries.

It’s on the second point where Cruz has fallen out of contention with Trump. Cruz campaigned hard for a sensational victory in Iowa, then skipped New Hampshire and planned on restarting his momentum in South Carolina. But as much as the two states are seemingly unalike, New Hampshire’s Republican electorate had a major effect on South Carolina’s, and Cruz was never really in contention for first place down south after posting a distant third to Trump in the Granite State.

Why didn’t Cruz take New Hampshire seriously? That’s the question he’ll have to answer when it’s over. His combined campaign/SuperPAC spending was $580,000, whereas Trump spent $3.7 million (a pittance compared to his free media) and the Rubio side shelled out $15.2 million.

The Cruz side boasted about this efficiency of just $12 a vote in his close finish ahead of top-spenders Bush, Rubio, and Christie. But it reveals the missed opportunity: New Hampshire primary voters were actually favorable to Cruz, but they hardly heard from him.

The New Hampshire blow-off underscores the third contrast that has contributed to Cruz coming up short to Trump so far: his strategy to slice and dice the Republican electorate up into a winning sum has certainly caused more harm than good. It’s diverted money from TV and radio that could be used to air Cruz’s direct pitch to voters.

The data-driven micro-targeting approach fit like a glove in the Iowa caucuses, a low-turnout, labor-intensive process featuring just 180,000 Republicans. But it never should have served as a leading strategy beyond that. The South Carolina pre-election coverage featured stories about Cruz’s “secret army” of 250 SuperPAC-paid canvassers and “Camp Cruz,” a makeshift dorm of campaign volunteers. Cruz himself frequently talked about how the election would be “determined by the grassroots,” as if their votes counted more.

But a presidential primaries don’t get determined by college students knocking on doors, no matter how sophisticated the data loaded on their iPads. Cruz’s reliance on a targeted ground game in the context where it matters little cost him the chance to air a campaign message that could chip into Donald Trump’s post-New Hampshire lead or even overcome Marco Rubio for second place. Rubio once again blew Cruz out of the water on television and radio spending, according to numbers from the Morning Consult.

Cruz likes to message to various components of the conservative movement, which explains the heavy use of big data. He has an issue position primed for each one. But this matters little as the primaries become nationalized beginning on Super Tuesday. The only way to make a case to millions of Republican voters stretching from Atlanta to El Paso is a persuasive TV campaign.

What should Cruz say to them? The Lone Star Committee has emphasized his unique and aggressive economic program: go back to the gold standard, flatten the tax code, and slash spending. It’s similar to what Ronald Reagan ran on in 1980, which is why our latest ad features a never-aired commercial clip from candidate Reagan during that primary season.

Trump’s success relies on voters’ overwhelming view of him as the best candidate to revive the economy. But if Cruz speaks about his economic proposals with the same intensity that Trump talks about building a wall or ending our trade deficits, that could change. The main cliché against Ted Cruz for president – that he’s too conservative – has proven not to be true. Why else would his main rivals shadow him ideologically? Instead, it’s his reluctance to wage a message broadly with voters. There’s still a chance to do that before March 1st.

Rich Danker is founder of the Lone Star Committee, a group running issue ads in support of Ted Cruz