9 Lessons Learned from the Cruz Campaign
As someone that had a front row seat to Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential run, I was able to see both how he managed to be in the final two of a massive field against all odds. As well as why he couldn’t take down Donald Trump and capture the nomination.
Cruz’s campaign provides important lessons for conservatives going forward — things to emulate and pitfalls to avoid.
1. There really is no conservative movement.
This bullet point will be its own column later, but for now this cycle exposed there is no conservative movement. Just movement conservatives surrounded by those seeking to cynically cash in on our beliefs, as this excerpt written by conservative columnist Ross Douthat vividly lays out:
Trump proved that many professional True Conservatives, many of the same people who flayed RINOs and demanded purity throughout the Obama era, were actually just playing a convenient part. From Fox News’ 10 p.m. hour to talk radio to the ranks of lesser pundits, a long list of people who should have been all-in for Cruz on ideological grounds either flirted with Trump, affected neutrality or threw down their cloaks for the Donald to stomp over to the nomination. Cruz thought he would have a movement behind him, but part of that movement was actually a racket, and Trumpistas were simply better marks.
2. Stay on message.
If you go back to 2015 and watch the announcement speeches of all 17 GOP candidates, the only one still saying many of the same things now he was saying almost a year ago was Cruz. That’s not a coincidence. For example, in terms of merit alone, Scott Walker should’ve probably been the nominee. Nobody in the GOP has a better record than he does (although admittedly that is a low bar). However, he tried to reinvent himself after he hired pretty much the all-pabulum team of consultants from the RNC. So instead of saying “I’m the guy that puts Democrat scalps on the wall, and there’s lots more wall space at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” Walker touted “reform and growth” and other Whig talking points. People yawned. Meanwhile, Cruz upstarted his campaign with a grand spectacle at Liberty University that captured people’s imaginations, and that’s why he replaced Walker as the conservative fighter in the race.
3. Know your audience.
Through the vetting process I was given the opportunity to meet most of the candidates and/or their teams to get an idea of their convictions, as well as their perceived path forward. What struck me about Cruz is he perfectly nailed the various factions within the grassroots, and early on compared it to the NCAA Tournament bracket. Meaning you’ve got to win one bracket at a time before winning the whole thing. That vision gave the Cruz campaign discipline, and kept it focused at a time everyone else was falling for the Trump shiny object. Without this focus and vision, there’s no way Cruz would’ve made it this far.
4. Ruthlessness sells
Beyond Trump’s cult, which I’ve previously documented here at CR, the main reason Cruz could not defeat Trump is he lost the “badass vote” (for lack of a more polite term). These are the voters Cruz should’ve had first dibs on after his fight to stop Obamacare, calling Ditch McConnell a liar (which he is), and all the other reasons the establishment hates him. However, for various reasons – some of which will be discussed later in this column – Cruz lost that vote to Trump post-Iowa and never recovered it. Since people saw Trump as the most ruthless, they viewed him (wrongly) as a winner and even a conservative (when he’s far from it). It turned out Cruz suffered from not being the very soulless self-promoter his detractors claimed. By the way, this was also true in 2012. Mitt Romney won the nomination because of the ruthless way he deconstructed Rick Perry, who was specifically brought into the race to stop Romney, and utterly destroyed Newt Gingrich when he emerged as his competitor.
5. If you build it, they will come.
One of the main things that sold me on endorsing Cruz early was his willingness to go out and actually build a campaign organization first, and then ask for the grassroots’ support. Too often candidates believe because they’re principled this will all just happen for them, and it doesn’t work that way. There is a vocational aspect to politics, which requires doing the actual work and not just passing the ideological test. Cruz put in that work. That’s how he out-flanked guys like Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, despite their residual support advantage.
6. Don’t apologize if you didn’t do anything wrong.
As a proud Cruz supporter, if I could undo one thing from this campaign it was what happened after Iowa with the fake “he stole the election from Ben Carson” scam. The Carson candidacy proved to be a scam, with book tours and hefty public speaking fees instead of actual campaigning. I was here in Iowa, I saw what happened, and this entire story was a hatchet job. However, when Cruz apologized to Carson (repeatedly) he gave the story legs, and let CNN off the hook for their sloppy reporting which caused the fiasco in the first place. You can’t on one hand tell the voters you did nothing wrong, but then apologize at the same time. Cruz should’ve treated Carson ruthlessly instead, responding with “hey if you think what we did to beat somebody we like was ruthless, wait until you see what we’ll do to the Democrats we don’t like this fall.” People would’ve cheered. Instead, almost all the post-Iowa momentum was lost, and Cruz never really regained the aforementioned “badass vote.”
7. Don’t befriend an adversary you’ll have to destroy later.
Cruz was right to bide his time before confronting Trump, and that helped him outlast the other conservative candidates in the field. However, by referring to Trump as “terrific” he took it too far, and gave Trump credibility he didn’t deserve. But in fairness many of us, myself included, made this mistake. Wrongly believing Trump wouldn’t actually turn out to be the very pond scum we warned about ahead of time.
8. FOX News is the enemy.
For the second straight primary cycle, Fox took a Republican whose past up until this point is a repudiation of conservatism, and carried him to the nomination. Except this time it was even more blatant than pro-Romney “contributors” like we saw four years ago. Entire programs on Fox were in-kind contributions to Trump, if not operating as de facto Super PACs. In recent years Fox has clearly turned on the very conservatives who made it the phenom it is, which is why priority number one for conservatives must be the creation of a competitive platform. Otherwise we risk doing the time warp again. Here in Iowa, conservatives have an organizational structure that can out-flank Fox’s Overton Window, and we have. Unfortunately, that exists almost nowhere else in the country, and it probably can’t be replicated until we first create a platform capable of reaching those people.
9. The evangelical vote/church is a hot mess.
For several years evangelical leaders have been worried about the worldview trends within the church reported by George Barna and others. This was the election when those chickens came home to roost. Again, Douthat sums it up painfully well:
Trump proved that many evangelical voters, supposedly the heart of a True Conservative coalition, are actually not really values voters or religious conservatives after all, and that the less frequently evangelicals go to church, the more likely they are to vote for a philandering sybarite instead of a pastor’s son. Cruz would probably be on his way to the Republican nomination if he had simply carried the Deep South. But unless voters were in church every Sunday, Trump’s identity politics had more appeal than Cruz’s theological-political correctness.
Finally, I’d like to post a link to my personal thoughts on Senator Cruz and his candidacy. What a shame the country missed out on this rare opportunity to put a real conservative in the White House.