As the Iowa primary draws near, the Republican race has come down to some basic questions: Can Donald Trump’s insurgent campaign maintain its support? And if it can’t, where do his votes go?
It seems unlikely his voters would flock to candidates like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio—not with the deep animus flowing towards the Republican establishment. Alternately, if Trump’s voters flee him because they deem the reality television star unelectable, why would they turn to fellow insurgents like Ben Carson or Mike Huckabee, who are even harder to envision in the Oval Office?
Standing in the gap is Senator Ted Cruz, a candidate every bit as uncompromising and angry as Trump—but with enough experience in elected office to seem plausible. Cruz also has a significantly strong campaign infrastructure, deep-pocketed donors, and skyrocketing poll numbers.
If Republican voters continue to support him at this rate, Cruz will become easily the most conservative major presidential candidate since Barry Goldwater.
Cruz’s strategy is pretty clear. Forget reaching out to minority voters, young women, or moderate voters sitting on the fence. Go hard at the GOP’s true base—white Americans more likely to be male, religious, and possessing clear conservative views—and motivate them as energetically as he can to show up at the polls.
On the campaign trail, Cruz is quick on his feet and armed with a silky-smooth stump speech that is delivered word-for-word every time. Not unlike Donald Trump, though on a smaller scale, Cruz is good at creating small “controversies” that earn him both free media exposure and the adoration of hard-right voters. At a recent event in Charles City, Iowa, Cruz was asked about Hillary Clinton’s role in Benghazi. He noted that when his daughter lies, she gets a “spanking,” and that “voters have a way of administering a spanking” as well.
The crowd loved it, but reporters on the tour quickly wrote up the exchange with a slight twinge of horror at a “spanking” analogy that involved the most prominent woman in American politics. By the time Cruz got to his next event in Cresco two hours later, “spanking” was trending on Twitter back in Washington.
Cruz knows when he’s baiting reporters, and relishes it—and so do his supporters. One of Cruz’s big laugh lines on the campaign trail is that, by the end of his presidency, “there’s gonna be a whole lot of newspaper reporters and editors and journalists that have checked themselves into therapy.”