Say what you will about Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who strikes colleagues as bullheaded and has never shied from a hyperpartisan fight. Just don’t call him lazy.
He shows up for late-night screenings of Christian movies in Iowa and early-morning town halls in New Hampshire, including one so remote that guests were warned that if they wandered away, bees, moose and rabid raccoons might kill them. He’s fine with three-hour drives between events, as long as his iPhone is charged and loaded with puzzles. And he has built a campaign with a chairman for every county in the first four primary and caucus states, fixers who can tell his team how to win over the local ag commissioners, 4-H judges and pastors.
This is precisely why Cruz has not been sweating the giant crowds and huge polling leads of Donald Trump as the clock ticks down to the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses. The flashy rallies and fiery rhetoric are good for headlines, but they alone will not carry the brash billionaire to the nomination. (Trump has hired a contestant from his former TV show The Apprentice to run his Iowa operations.) Tradition says victory often goes to the candidate with the ear closest to the ground.
Cruz is not alone in focusing on efforts far from the spotlight. Take New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has essentially qualified for dual residency in New Hampshire these days. By Christmas, he will have spent 56 days of 2015 in the state doing 118 events, most of them not much bigger than a town-council meeting. “You can’t win if you don’t show up,” a Christie adviser deadpans. Or consider former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the onetime front runner who has gone to ground with stunts to illustrate his small-ball work ethic, like making New Hampshire history with five town-hall-style meetings in one day.
Such on-the-ground work is not sexy. It’s actually fairly miserable for candidates and their inner circles. Long drives. Bad food. Constant scrutiny. And it does not show up in early polling, which has been weaponized this cycle by network debate qualifications and Trump, who rarely speaks without some polling reference. It’s worth remembering that at this point in past presidential campaigns, Howard Dean, Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich were leading in national surveys.
The hard work, instead, is geared at taking advantage of voters who traditionally decide at the last minute. In 2012, 46% of Iowa and New Hampshire Republicans made their pick during the final week, according to exit polls. An internal survey of 5,000 Iowans done during the second week of December for Mike Huckabee’s campaign found 75% of Republican caucusgoers–a group likely to number 140,000 in a state of 3.1 million–still haven’t made up their minds. That explains why, despite being stuck in single digits, few candidates are as despondent as surveys would suggest they should be; late-breaking rises, like Cruz’s, can come. The trick is to have a political machine in place to take advantage of good fortune.
On this score, Cruz may be the candidate to beat. Like rival Marco Rubio, he has not committed a single meaningful gaffe over the course of the campaign and has consistently performed well in national debates. But unlike Rubio, Cruz has spent millions on a sophisticated voter-profiling database. In Iowa alone, the campaign has recruited almost 4,000 volunteers with rewards like opening-night tickets to the latest Star Wars. His relatively short public career suggests that there is no knockout sound bite that will haunt him should he win the nomination. (His positions, however, offer plenty of fodder for Democrats. For instance, he claims climate change is not backed up by science.)
Meanwhile, Cruz’s super PACs–yes, there are several–have at least $30 million at the ready to defend his rising standing. That pales next to Trump’s billions, but the New Yorker was set to end the year without having run a single television commercial. While his rivals plodded and boasted, Cruz convinced donors early that polls take a backseat to organization and discipline. The smart money still thinks he may be right.
–With additional reporting by ZEKE J. MILLER/PARADISE, NEV.
This appears in the December 28, 2015 issue of TIME.