DES MOINES, Iowa — There is a simple reason why Ted Cruz won the Iowa caucuses Monday night. He is a master strategist — and he always has been.
Still, while Cruz performed well enough to win Iowa, his rival Marco Rubio may have gained the upper hand in the contest to consolidate supporters by finishing closer to second place than anyone expected, with 23 percent of the vote.
In the waning days of the Hawkeye State contest, as Manhattan mogul Donald Trump built a sold lead in the polls, pundits began to wonder whether America was witnessing a new kind of presidential campaign — a campaign in which celebrity bombast and Twitter broadsides would matter more than the grubby work of getting out the vote.
It wasn’t to be. While Trump’s staffers bluffed about their “fantastic” ground game — yet refused, when pressed, to divulge any details — members of Team Cruz openly boasted about the 5,000 volunteers they had lured to Iowa; the 100 state leaders and pastors they’d signed up, including Rep. Steve King, talk-radio host Steve Deace and social conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats; and the millions they spent on data analytics and psychological profiling. All of their efforts were carefully calibrated to identify and turn out the most reliable caucus-goers of all: older, evangelical conservatives.
After winning the Iowa caucuses Monday night, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz addresses a rally in Des Moines, Iowa, with his wife, Heidi, at his side. (Photo: Jim Young/Reuters)
And that’s ultimately who showed up Monday — not Trump’s flakier first-timers. With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Cruz had 27.7 percent of the vote to Trump’s 24.3 percent.
“Let me first of all say, to God be the glory,” Cruz declared in his victory speech at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines. “Tonight is a victory for the grassroots. Tonight is a victory for courageous conservatives across Iowa and all across this great nation.“
In a clear dig at Trump, Cruz went on to describe his win as “a victory for every American who understands that after we survive eight long years of the Obama presidency, that no one personality can right the wrongs done by Washington.”
Facing a noticeably smaller crowd than usual, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attends a campaign rally on Monday in Waterloo, Iowa. (Photo: Khue Bui for Yahoo News)
Even before the results rolled in Monday night, there were signs that Trump might not be invincible. Earlier that day, Trump took the stage in a cavernous convention center room in Waterloo, Iowa, where he faced rows and rows of empty seats. The candidate looked exhausted and sometimes confused. His usual stump speech lines weren’t generating the kind of cheers he was used to. Now he was getting only tepid applause for lines that had once driven his audiences wild — including his pledge to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and his criticisms of the Iran nuclear deal.
Backstage, Trump’s aides hoped it was merely the weather that had depressed turnout. A soupy fog had enveloped the region, complicating even Trump’s travel plans. But the candidate seemed to sense something was off. At one point, he grew serious as he reflected on his wild candidacy so far, the big crowds, the positive poll numbers. None of it mattered, he said, if people didn’t turn out to vote for him. What he needed to win, he told the crowd, was more than just a bunch of “fans.”
In the end, he didn’t get what he was hoping for. At his rally Monday night, Trump delivered the shortest speech he’s ever given as a candidate. “I love you people,” he said. “I absolutely love the people of Iowa.” So much, he added, that he might come back and buy a farm. But first, he said, “On to New Hampshire” — a state where he is still ahead in the polls, at least for now.
Part of Monday’s record Republican turnout was due to simple enthusiasm. But strategy played a part as well. Cruz in particular invested heavily in technology, empowering his top data and analytics chief, Chris Wilson, to assemble a robust digital targeting effort.
Wilson said that the Cruz campaign built 167 voter “universes” in the state, including one focused on Iowans who want to legalize fireworks. The campaign then reached out to these voters on the phone and through the Internet to discuss fireworks legalization, Wilson told Yahoo News.
Wilson said that since early in the primary, Cruz had “made sure I understood we were not going to be outperformed on analytics and digital.”
Every politician plans, plots or schemes (depending on how pejorative you want to be about it). That’s part of the job. But not every politician is a prodigy at it.
Ted Cruz is. As Yahoo News reported in November, Cruz has since adolescence invested the vast majority of his time, energy and boundless ambition in endeavors that require and reward long-term strategic thinking. He honed his skills as a champion debater at Princeton University. He perfected them as one of the most effective appellate lawyers in the country. He relied on them during his first long-shot race in Texas. And now he is deploying them in the national arena as a senatorial troublemaker and presidential candidate. There may be no shrewder, more calculating figure in American politics than Cruz — and so far, nearly all his calculations have paid off.
Josh Kent celebrates at the caucus-night rally of GOP presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Monday night in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP)
The current campaign is no exception. Cruz is running what even Dan Pfeiffer, a former top aide to President Obama, concedes is “ the best campaign on the other side.” He has raised more money than any Republican other than Jeb Bush and more non-PAC money than any other Republican, period; he also has more cash on hand than any of his GOP rivals. He was the first candidate to recruit chairmen in all 171 counties in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. He is the only candidate who for months has been consistently calling and sending surrogates to all five U.S. territories — Puerto Rico, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, Guam and the Virgin Islands — in order to secure extra delegates who could prove decisive down the road. He is doing more than any other Republican to prepare for the so-called “SEC primary,” a new Southern voting blitz set to take place on March 1. And he is ready for New Hampshire.
“We’ve been looking past Iowa for awhile,” said Kellyanne Conway, strategist for Keep the Promise 1, a pro-Cruz super-PAC. “Many Iowa winners are forced to suffer through New Hampshire, waiting for South Carolina. Not us. We’ll be competing there.”
In the weeks ahead, however, Cruz will continue to tussle with Trump for control of the GOP’s insurgent wing.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, with his family nearby, speaks to supporters Monday night at the Rubio watch party at the Des Moines Marriott Downtown hotel. (Photo: Dave Kaup/Reuters)
Rubio, meanwhile, was clearly the choice of the rest of the Republican Party —that is, the voters who don’t want Cruz or Trump to win. He will head to the Granite State, which holds its primary a week from Tuesday, with a full head of steam. If Rubio can finish off Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich there, there will be immense pressure on the other establishment candidates to drop out and line up behind the Florida senator, who is expected to benefit from an avalanche of endorsements in the coming days.
“It’s now a three-way race,” New Hampshire GOP operative Michael Dennehy told Yahoo News. “Everyone will be looking for Rubio to knock out Bush, Kasich & Co. in New Hampshire. All the New Hampshire voters will be talking about in the next seven days is Cruz-Trump-Rubio.”
Minutes after he was declared the third runner-up, Rubio emerged onstage at the Des Moines Marriott Downtown hotel beaming with confidence, as his supporters — many of whom held Budweisers in their hands — chanted his name.
“This is the moment they said would never happen,” he said, treating his bronze medal as if it were a gold. “For months, they told us we had no chance. For months, they told us because we offer too much optimism in a time of anger, we have no chance. For months, they told us because we didn’t have the right endorsements or the right political connections, we had no chance. They told me that we had no chance because my hair wasn’t gray enough or my boots were too high. They told me I needed to wait my turn.”
“This is your turn,” shouted one enthusiastic supporter.
With reporting from Alyssa Bereznak with the Marco Rubio campaign.