Friday, November 20, 2015

Iowa: The Cruz-cial State

(I'm sorry about the headline. Well, a little bit sorry. Maybe.)

Politico reports today on the efforts of the Cruz campaign to build a strong organizational infrastructure in Iowa, drawing heavily on existing networks of evangelical Christian churches, leaders, and activists. With Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal now out of the race, and with Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee—who each rode strong support among Iowa social conservatives to victory in 2012 and 2008, respectively—struggling to break through this time, the Cruz campaign recognizes an opportunity to consolidate the evangelical vote behind its candidate. Ben Carson is a current favorite of many Iowa evangelicals, but Cruz is hoping that Carson's campaign will fade as the caucuses approach, and that his relative lack of organization on the ground in Iowa will prevent him from turning out his vote effectively.

Cruz is being smart here. Aside from the aforementioned Huckabee and Santorum (who don't appear viable in any event), no other current Republican candidate needs to do well in Iowa as much as Cruz does. Cruz's brand of aggressively conservative politics, with a strong emphasis on social traditionalism, is not a natural fit for the non-evangelical, relatively secular New Hampshire Republican electorate—the article reports that he is forming a "national prayer team," for example, which I don't recall the Romney or McCain campaigns doing—and the New Hampshire primary is thus one of the biggest obstacles standing between Cruz and the nomination. Huckabee and Santorum, like Pat Robertson before them, exceeded expectations in past years by performing well among the evangelicals of Iowa, only to stall out once competition shifted to the very different political culture of the Granite State.

Cruz has advantages that these other candidates lacked—he is less reliant on social conservatism as the primary basis of his popular appeal, and he will undoubtedly be better funded, better prepared, and better organized—but it is hard to see how he runs strongly in New Hampshire unless he does very well in Iowa, and if he doesn't do well in either state, history suggests that he has little shot at the nomination. His main rivals—Rubio, Bush, Christie, Kasich, and even Trump—could all conceivably bounce back in New Hampshire after a loss in Iowa, but a bad night for Cruz in Iowa would severely, perhaps fatally, damage his campaign. Thus Cruz is right to invest heavily in Iowa; it's a crucial test of his presidential chances.