DES MOINES — At a rally on Saturday night in Sioux City, two days before the Iowa caucuses, Ted Cruz gave a show of force.
The introductory speeches lasted well over an hour. There was Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats and Rep. Steve King, two key endorsements for Cruz who have accompanied him to many campaign events here. Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots came on to endorse Cruz, and brought along several activists from her group to talk about their support for the candidate. Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson gave a stemwinder that resulted in people in the audience making duck calls. Glenn Beck spoke for over 30 minutes in a dramatic address that at one point involved his producing what he said was George Washington’s copy of Don Quixote.
The rally encapsulated everything that makes Cruz seem like someone who was made in a lab to win Iowa. Cruz delivered the same message he has given for months here, where he has stumped with discipline and hit upon a hardline religious conservative message that resonates with the evangelical voters who are so key to winning Iowa. His campaign prides itself on its ability to reach and turn out voters in this state, has locked up high-profile endorsements both in Iowa and the wider conservative movement, and marginalized other evangelical candidates.
Cruz has done everything right. Yet he is no sure thing to win on Monday — a potential rejection of everything we thought we knew about Iowa politics, or if he does win, a reaffirmation of the state’s fundamentals.
The final Des Moines Register poll on Saturday showed Cruz trailing Donald Trump by five points, and he’s been lagging behind Trump — the man who rejects retail politics, who’s known for money and women and celebrity, and who jets in and out for huge rallies — in other polls, too. The Trump phenomenon may simply be too strong and anomalous.
“If the Trump surge does happen it’s completely logical that the Cruz campaign could do everything right when it comes to uniting every anti-establishment Republican in the state, building this incredible coalition with a massive grassroots operation and cutting-edge analytics and data, and they hit their win number and it still isn’t enough if the Trump surge happens,” said Matt Strawn, former chair of the Iowa Republican Party.
Part of the reason why the lack of retail doesn’t seem to hurt Trump, Strawn said, is because he could be bringing new people into the process who don’t necessarily have the same expectations of candidate contact as seasoned caucusgoers.
Trump has broken all the rules for how a winning candidate in Iowa behaves. He only started doing retail stops recently, with a visit to a Pizza Ranch and an out-of-character stay in a Holiday Inn Express, as well. Trump has typically flown in and out of the state in a single day, holding one or two large rallies where he speaks from behind a podium, shakes some hands on the rope line and then leaves. His campaign is thin on the middle school cafeteria town halls and Casey’s General Store swing-bys that characterize other campaigns.
Cruz has criticized Trump for this style of campaigning, and has said multiple times that Iowa cannot be won from a TV studio in Manhattan.
Much has been made of Cruz’s operation in Iowa. Cruz himself, who is fond of talking about campaign process, has said his 2012 Senate campaign was modeled on Barack Obama’s: a robust, active organization that valued data. The campaign says it has 12,000 volunteers who are averaging 20,000 phone calls a day and knocking on 2,000 doors a day. His campaign has engaged everything from out-of-state volunteers housed in a dormitory nicknamed “Camp Cruz” to “psychographic targeting” data analytics — all written about extensively in the press — to target caucusgoers.
While Cruz has painstakingly targeted the right kinds of voters for his campaign, Trump has gone for the unlikelier caucusgoer.
“Donald Trump has remade the electorate in the image he needs to be successful,” Strawn said. “So I think if you were to take any lesson, it’s that you don’t have to accept the Iowa caucus electorate as it is.” (Cruz himself has “brought together a lot of factions that don’t normally play in the same sandbox,” Strawn pointed out, citing Cruz’s going after Rand Paul supporters.)
Though Trump is obviously the main agent of chaos disrupting Cruz’s path to victory, there’s also the strong possibility that previous Iowa caucus winners Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee are siphoning off enough support from him to weaken him just enough for Trump to emerge as the winner.
And not everyone agrees Cruz has done everything right. Craig Robinson, the author of the Iowa Republican blog and frequent Cruz critic, told BuzzFeed News he didn’t think Cruz had hit certain areas of Iowa that he should have, despite the fact that Cruz is completing the “full Grassley” of hitting all 99 counties on Monday.
“On the surface, he has checked all the boxes and even at the start of the race he was tailor-made for Iowa because his brand of politics matches the caucus electorate to a T,” Robinson said. But it “blows my mind,” Robinson said, that “here you have a strong social conservative candidate who the last time he was in Oskaloosa was October, last time he was in Pella was in June.” Robinson pointed out that these are areas where Cruz endorser Vander Plaats “owned” when he ran for governor.
There are “different expectations” for Trump, Robinson said, as “people accept the fact that Trump was going to campaign like a frontrunner and never get to some of the more rural spots in Iowa.”
Another potential issue, and one on which Cruz actually bucks the typical Iowa playbook: Cruz’s refusal to support the Renewable Fuel Standard, which has led to constant badgering by pro-ethanol lobbyists and audience questions at nearly every stop on the trail.
“He has taken a real battering from the ethanol industry,” said David Yepsen, a longtime former Des Moines Register reporter and Iowa politics expert. “What might have been had Cruz not taken that stance?”
“Everything we know about politics as usual for at least this cycle is different, because of a candidate like Donald Trump,” said Vander Plaats in an interview with BuzzFeed News on Thursday. Vander Plaats blamed “his celebrity status” and “all the free media” for Trump’s omnipresence.
Fellow Cruz endorser Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, cautioned in an interview with BuzzFeed News on Wednesday that the caucuses still require a different kind of campaigning than a primary.
“The caucuses are different than the primaries and it takes a little more effort to have people come together, so we’ll see,” Perkins said. But “I would never underestimate Donald Trump.”