Ted Cruz has a most unusual problem. He could plausibly win the first three states of the Republican nomination battle.
But don’t pop the bubbly just yet. His potential for wins is actually one of the biggest liabilities the first-term Senator from Texas faces. That's because if he fails to meet expectations, which he has been building by campaigning hard in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, his carefully crafted narrative could just as quickly come undone. There are few mistresses in presidential politics as punishing as the expectations game.
Cruz's signature bravado suggests that he thinks he can meet the expectations. Where most candidates signal that they're focusing on either Iowa (Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee) or New Hampshire (Jeb Bush), Cruz is going all-in with both. His advisers want him to be seen as a national candidate, not one who has regional appeal. Just look at their aggressive push for South states that have primaries in March.
If Cruz can win in Iowa — and that’s still very much a question — then he would roar into New Hampshire with momentum. His advisers watched closely as, four years ago, Santorum shocked the system with his showing in Iowa but had no infrastructure waiting for him in New Hampshire. Cruz doesn’t want to repeat the pattern this time. Cruz was the first candidate to line up chairs in every county in the first three states, plus Nevada.
Cruz's team is offering no winks and nods here. He is playing to win. “Y’all take this seriously,” Cruz said late Sunday as his bus rumbled in the parking lot outside this Italian-American restaurant along New Hampshire’s southern border. He then made the obligatory cheer for the New England Patriots and a defense of quarterback Tom Brady. “For the record, Tom Brady was framed,” Cruz said of the hometown hero, noting he is thoroughly aware that the pander is transparent.
Coming up short in Iowa or New Hampshire could leave him wounded and winded just when he can least afford it. South Carolina remains a muddled mess that is going to be taking its cues — especially when it comes to Donald Trump — from Iowa's Feb. 1 caucuses and New Hampshire's Feb. 9 primary. It's increasingly likely that a split decision could send the race in pandemonium in South Carolina, where Cruz's brand of blistering rhetoric will likely receive a friendly welcome.
On Sunday, Cruz started a grueling campaign swing through the Granite State. Over five days, he will visit all 10 of the state’s counties and hold at least 17 events. It’s a schedule that takes him to places like the Pasta Loft here in Milton, N.H., and the Freedom Country Store in — you guessed it — Freedom, N.H.
New Hampshire is not an obvious venue for Cruz, who has made his faith a central pillar of his campaign and launched his campaign at Liberty University. Voters are prickly and have seldom favored those who wear religion on their sleeve. While evangelicals in Iowa have tremendous sway in picking a caucus winner, New Hampshire is consistently ranked among the most secular in the country.
Cruz is not curbing his faith when he heads north, however. That in-your-face authenticity might be powering his support. He quoted Scripture three separate times during his event at the Pasta Loft and consistently praised “Judeo-Christian values” over those dogged “New York values” he associates with Trump. “Our friends in the media, seems like they lit their hair on fire. They were very confused. ‘What are these New York values of which you speak?’” Cruz joked. “I would say that in the rest of America, people know exactly what that means.”
His crowds echoed “Amen” after other non-religious proclamations made with the enthusiasm of a preacher. It’s easy to forget that this is a political campaign and not a revival tent. “He trusts in the Lord,” said Susan Synder, a 62-year-old lab supervisor from Milford. She attended a Carly Fiorina event on Friday night and visited with Cruz two nights later. She left a committed Cruz voter. “He wants to simply the government and return the power to the people. He is being called to do it by the Lord.”
That’s not to say the Church of Cruz in New Hampshire is the same as its branch in Iowa. To be sure, when Cruz was talking about the international deal with Iran on its nuclear plans and President Barack Obama’s support of it, one voter erupted with “screw him.” It was hardly Christian language, but one the cranky yankees of New England take as gospel.
As Cruz kept an almost singular focus on Iowa, he has gone two months between New Hampshire visits. Other candidates such as John Kasich, Chris Christie and Bush have decamped to New Hampshire and still can’t break out of the pack of candidates clustered around second place.
Yet there’s the question of history; a Cruz win in Iowa might actually hurt his odds in New Hampshire. Among Republicans, there is a flinty sense of pride that New Hampshire does not ratify Iowa’s picks. In 2012, Santorum won Iowa and Mitt Romney won New Hampshire. In 2008, Huckabee won Iowa and John McCain won New Hampshire. In 2000, George W. Bush won Iowa and McCain claimed victory in New Hampshire. In 1996, Bob Dole won Iowa and Pat Buchanan won New Hampshire.
Cruz is not deterred and may be right in his analysis. This GOP primary has defied previous campaign patterns. Cruz is consistently tied for second place in polls in New Hampshire and ahead of Trump in some Iowa polls. So why is Cruz doing well at this moment? Part of it is his larger-than-life personality. Part of it is his constant appearances in conservative media and the flock he has nurtured there. Some of it is his talent as a speaker and his ability to read what voters want. And that's not an insignificant talent.
“He sounds like Reagan,” said Mike Freud, a 52-year-old Amherst, N.H., resident who finds Trump amusing but not fit for the White House. “This is the guy we need at this moment. Ted has a much better grasp on what needs to happen."
First, though, he needs to make things happen in his GOP primary. His task this week? Logging miles on his motorcoach.