In the Republican presidential race, the challenge now for Ted Cruz is to prove he can win primaries.
But he has, you say. He’s won six so far.
He has not. He has won two primaries – Texas and Oklahoma, where he logically should have won, Texas being his home state and Oklahoma its ideological neighbor. His other four victories have all been in caucuses.
There are big differences between primaries and caucuses. Primaries are more reflective of the overall mood of the electorate. In primaries, people show up, cast their vote and go home. Caucuses reward ground games and arm twisting, and can be somewhat manipulated. People show up, huddle together, hear pitches from campaigns, and get pulled in different directions by fellow caucus-goers right before they vote.
Going into Tuesday, there have been 19 total state contests (not counting Puerto Rico) which have consisted of 12 primaries and seven caucuses. When it comes to primaries, Donald Trump has dominated, winning 10 out of 12, taking New Hampshire, South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia and Louisiana. Cruz won the Texas and Oklahoma primaries, his home bases.
By contrast, in the seven caucuses so far, Cruz has won four – Iowa, Alaska, Maine and Kansas. Trump won two, Nevada and Kentucky. Marco Rubio won the Minnesota caucus. Cruz and other anti-Trump forces have made much of the fact that polls showed Trump leading in some of the caucus states won by Cruz.
But polling is notoriously iffy when it comes to caucus states. Caucuses do not reflect the general sentiment of the electorate that polling reflects, since it’s much more difficult to determine who will show up to caucus and how much last-minute arm-twisting will alter the outcome. Polling is much more reliable when it comes to primary states.
The two big prizes this past Saturday were Louisiana and Kentucky, both won by Trump. Cruz and some in the media attempted to downgrade Trump’s wins because polling had him leading by more than the final results.
But in the days leading up to Saturday, Trump had been subjected to a debate in which the Fox News moderators were clearly devoted to diminishing him, a heavily-covered Mitt Romney (of all people) speech designed to cast aspersions on Trump’s candidacy, and millions of dollars in negative advertising against him. That he held on to win in Louisiana and Kentucky and continues to lead in polling nationally and in upcoming states is more impressive than the fact that his margin grew smaller, which was not a surprise.
Cruz has been mapping and planning his campaign for at least two years, putting a ground game into place state by state, courting volunteers, and building a grassroots operation.
The challenge for Cruz is that the upcoming contests over the next two weeks are overwhelmingly traditional primary races, where Trump has dominated and where ground games and grassroots organization are not as persuasive as they are in caucuses.
On Tuesday, March 8, primaries will be held in Idaho, Michigan and Mississippi, with Hawaii holding a caucus. The big prize that day is Michigan. A week from Tuesday, on March 15, all the state contests are primaries – Ohio, Florida, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina.
The latest poll out of Michigan, released Monday, shows Trump, 42, John Kasich, 20, Cruz, 19, Rubio, 9. The day before, a separate poll of Michigan had Trump 41, Cruz 22, Rubio, 17, Kasich 13. A poll the day before that, Saturday, had Kasich in the lead, a couple of points ahead of Trump. The latest polls out of Mississippi and Idaho show Trump comfortably ahead in those states.
Whether Cruz, Kasich or Rubio – whose “Trump Light” strategy backfired – can win a big primary state (aside from their home states, if Kasich or Rubio can even win them), as opposed to a caucus state, will be telling going forward. If Trump dominates on March 8, it likely means that the national polling, which continues to show Trump in command, will play out in the primary states that are upcoming.
Trump decided on a completely unorthodox campaign, compared with tradition. He holds big rallies and events, and counts on their momentum. While his campaign has lately attempted to augment his presence with ground games, they will pale in comparison to those that have been built over the course of months and years.
Trump is relying on his presence and his broad messages to huge crowds to motivate supporters to the polls, while his rivals engage in tried and true get-out-the-vote methods through traditional mailings, phone calls and television ads. Trump has so far won by spending a fraction of what his opponents spend on media.
His opponents complain that Trump gets too much free media attention. But a majority of the time devoted on television to Trump is negative. Yes, the free media time devoted to him might dwarf his competitors, but it’s unlikely the rest of them would still be in the race if they were subjected to the level of negativity, criticism and attacks that he endures from the media on a daily basis, not to mention the Super PAC money being thrown at him in negative commercials.
If someone besides Trump wins Michigan on Tuesday, not to mention Idaho and Mississippi, it will be a sign that Trump is in trouble, that the establishment’s grenades are hitting their mark, or perhaps that Trump’s support was more of a novelty than a movement.
But if Trump prevails this week, Super Tuesday on March 15 will likely be the ballgame.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.