I think Ted Cruz had a problematic week, but I do not think it has impacted him negatively with his base. The most interesting observation to be made this coming week and over this past weekend is what Ted Cruz does with and how he treats those who like him, but were willing to also be critical of his performance on television talk shows. If Cruz gets into a bunker mentality where any criticism is an attack and a signal of opposition to him instead of treating it as constructive, he may not last.
As Cruz moves into first place, understanding that not all criticism is opposition and not all kind words are from friends is going to become vital. Some will say kind things about a candidate in order to harm the candidate, see e.g. Putin endorsing Trump, and some people will be critical of candidates they like because they think their candidate needs to do better. A paranoid campaign is going to lash out at all criticism, no matter how well intended the criticism is.
Cruz enters this phase of the campaign because he has the best chance of becoming the nominee at this point. He does so for several reasons.
First, despite all the complaints from Republicans about Ted Cruz not throwing Donald Trump under the bus, it has served Cruz well. He is now the second choice of both Trump and Carson supporters. Trump supporters are much less likely than Cruz supporters to go to the Iowa Caucus right now and the Cruz organization is so far ahead of everyone else in organizing, it is becoming an insurmountable organizational lead for Cruz. If Cruz swings out of Iowa with a win, it will propel further momentum in his direction as he swings south to South Carolina and the SEC Primary. In both Texas and Georgia, the two big states on March 1st, Cruz has extremely impressive ground game operations. In Georgia, Cruz has one of the best Presidential ground game operations I have seen.
Second, while I have been very open that I think Cruz had a rough few days of interviews, the irony of those interviews is that it set Cruz up to remind his base that Marco Rubio was in the Gang of Eight and Ted Cruz was not. Further, I have noticed repeatedly that the outsiders are seeing vastly more grace this time around from their supporters than the insiders. Bush’s voters have been quick to flee him. Fiorina’s have too. Christie’s fled him and now Rubio’s are wavering and looking at Christie. Meanwhile, with the exception of Carson’s supporters, who have gone to Cruz, both Trump and Cruz have held on to their supporters despite missteps along the way. Voters on the outside are so desperate for an outsider to win, they have let their candidates have a runway to improve on the campaign trail the insiders have not had.
Third, Chris Christie is rising in New Hampshire and now, I’m told by several campaigns, in Iowa. Christie’s growing support comes at the expense of Marco Rubio, particularly in New Hampshire. As Christie surges, he prevents Marco Rubio from being able to consolidate insider and establishment votes against Cruz, Trump, and Carson. This gives Cruz an easier path to navigate in Iowa while forcing Rubio to spend more resources in New Hampshire while Cruz turns south.
Fourth, Cruz still has some very well funded super PACs and has put his Washington spending principles to work on the campaign trail. Cruz’s campaign knows how to get every penny out of a dollar bill and maximize every single thing the campaign does. His campaign is not consultant heavy. Instead, Cruz has consultants, but the consultants he has are people loyal to him, not a commission. That makes a difference.
It is increasingly obvious that Ted Cruz is the last best chance to stop Donald Trump. It is more obvious that Cruz and Rubio are where the race will ultimately be. But between the two, I would give the edge to Ted Cruz right now. His campaign is lean, his ground game impressive, and his path forward is less crowded. Voting is still more than a month away, but Ted Cruz has been laying impressive groundwork to get to Iowa and I think it is going to pay off for him.