Winning Iowa was somewhat of a bust for Ted Cruz based upon the media’s radio-silence and the Ben Carson campaign quitting controversy. The order in which the candidates finished in New Hampshire played out better than the Cruz campaign could have hoped. Funny how his 3rd place finish will work out better for him than when he finished first a week earlier.
To understand this, we have to understand the dynamic of the upcoming primary season. Momentum is everything and expectations versus results determine momentum. There are other factors such as prevalence in the news cycle and focus of attacks from other campaigns, but heading into South Carolina, those in the know realize that Cruz is best positioned to win it all. Here’s why…
The Three Lanes
Contrary to popular pundit belief, the Republican Establishment is not prepared to embrace the malleable Donald Trump. Just because they believe he is willing to make deals doesn’t dispel their notion that he would get crushed in the general election. They shifted to say nice things about him and even promote him in Iowa for one reason and one reason only: they wanted to get Cruz out of the way to make room for one of their guys to be the Trump alternative. It didn’t work. Cruz won. While they haven’t abandoned the need to move Cruz out of the way, they have bigger issues to deal with that we’ll get to shortly.
First, we have to assume that this year there are three lanes instead of two. There is the conservative lane with Cruz as the only contender there (though Trump and Marco Rubio can still pull many of those voters). There’s the anti-establishment lane with Trump as the only contender there (though Cruz and Carson can still play a bit in that lane). Then, there’s everyone else in the moderate Establishment lane.
The Establishment lane will attempt to take Trump down before the primaries turn to winner-take-all on March 15, but to do that they need to take out Cruz. To take out Cruz, they’ll first have to address their bigger issue…
The Muddled Middle
In past years, the problem has been reversed. The conservative lane has had a plethora of choices battling for a smaller chunk of voters and campaign funds while the Establishment lane coalesced early on a single candidate that could get love from the bigger donor base.
Now, they have a mess. Marco Rubio is in their lane. Jeb Bush and John Kasich are in their lane. Chris Christie may or may not be in their lane (as of the time of this writing he hasn’t dropped out, yet). Assuming Christie is out, that still leaves three candidates who each have enough people in their camp and enough strong points to make them viable for the lane. Kasich has New Hampshire momentum and Ohio on March 15, but he’s almost out of money. Bush has money but failed to crack the top three in Iowa or New Hampshire. Rubio has the charisma and some money but his momentum is currently negative.
Rubio looked like he would emerge from Iowa, but he fell flat on his face in New Hampshire.
Now that we understand the situation, let’s look at why the order was perfect for Cruz.
The Ultimate Cruz Top Five List in New Hampshire
Before anyone claims that he would have had to win it for it to be an ideal placement, we have to understand that there was pretty much no chance of him winning even under the best possible circumstances. He knew that going in. That’s why his campaign and his super PACs combined to spend $580,000 in New Hampshire. To put that into perspective, Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham spent more in the state and they dropped out. Everyone that placed below him combined to spend over $70 million in the state. Rubio alone, who finished 5th, outspent him nearly 30:1.
Then, there’s Trump. He outspent Cruz but not by much ($3.6 million), but more importantly the way that Independents are allowed to vote in the Republican primary and the fact that many in New Hampshire vote opposite of their actual party to “craft” their opponent in November made Trump’s victory a foregone conclusion. The venerable FiveThirtyEight put him at a 70% chance of winning, but in reality it was well over 95%.
Now, let’s look at the overall order so we can see why it favors Cruz so dramatically.
- Donald Trump: If anyone thought that Trump’s campaign wasn’t truly viable long term, they now know that it’s serious. His domination in New Hampshire will wake up many Republicans who do not support him to seek out the best option to beat him. That person is now Ted Cruz. Perhaps more importantly, it’s likely that some of the power brokers in the Republican Establishment will realize that they’re not going to get one of their guys in there, so they’ll have to choose between Trump or Cruz. As annoyed as they are with Cruz, many will realize that Trump is the existential threat to the Republican party itself if he gets nominated and summarily destroyed by the Democrats.
- John Kasich: Considering all of the money that was spent in New Hampshire by the Establishment candidates, Cruz couldn’t have picked a better person to finish second. It can be argued that this is a better result than had Cruz himself finished second. There’s a single delegate difference, but because Kasich beat his Establishment competitors by two spots rather than coming in third, he’s going to get more attention in the coming days. Cruz wants Kasich to have that attention because he’s the weakest of the Establishment candidates; Kasich and his super PACs have spent 89.1% of their money to get second in New Hampshire and acquire their 3 delegates. Kasich now has under $3 million cash on hand, less than Carly Fiorina or Ben Carson. He’s not built for the long haul, but placing second will keep him in the race longer than Cruz could have hoped.
- Ted Cruz: He over-performed. He wasn’t supposed to be third considering how little he spent and how much everyone else spent. As a result, he can’t be relegated to the status of Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee, candidates who won Iowa but bombed in New Hampshire. He’ll take third as a victory and rightfully so.
- Jeb Bush: It was extremely important for Bush (and Cruz) that he finish ahead of Rubio. This perpetuates the suspension of disbelief that he needs to continue to retain the limited support he has.
- Marco Rubio: Had Rubio beaten Bush, Cruz, or Kasich, he would still be the Establishment’s best hope. Even a fourth place finish could have been chalked up as a temporary setback from his debate performance, one that he could bounce back from with a strong South Carolina debate and his powerful endorsements in the state. Now, the doubts will linger. All eyes will be on him for the next debate. He can’t have a good one. He needs an incredible debate to bounce back and reclaim his Establishment mantle.
Ted Cruz is well positioned going into South Carolina to take the lead in winning the nomination. He has a fight ahead of him, but the way that the New Hampshire primary shook out made it easier for him to focus on one target: Donald Trump.