In case you missed it yesterday, here’s Trump doing his version of “I know you are but what am I?” after Cruz got caught on audio at a fundraiser questioning Trump’s judgment. (Cruz already laughed off the “maniac” line on Twitter last night.) I’ve seen righties on social media today scoffing at the idea that this criticism, indicting Cruz for not getting along with the rest of the Senate, will do Cruz any harm. Voters hate Congress, especially tea-party voters. How does it damage Cruz to remind them that he shares that hatred? Okay, but Trump’s pitching himself to his own voters as a sort of hybrid, a strongman who’ll decimate their enemies but also a world-class dealmaker who’ll convince his opponents to go along with his plans. Sometimes, like in what he said last week about imposing the death penalty via executive order, he emphasizes the strongman approach. Other times, like when he talks about trade and China, he emphasizes his skills as a negotiator. His attack on Cruz here is clumsy but I think he could develop it into something that’d play better with his own supporters, that Cruz is really nothing but a grandstander with no strategy for getting his many enemies in Washington to give him what he wants on policy. Elect him and there’ll be more paralysis; elect Trump and he’ll use his Trumpian superpowers to convince Democrats to give Trump fans the things they want, like more protectionism. For all the blather about how Trump and Cruz are running similar “burn it all down” anti-Washington insurgent campaigns, their core messages are different. Cruz, the Reaganite, is promising to get the government out of people’s way. Trump, the statist, is promising to get the government to start working for people like you instead of for people like “them.” Convincing his fans that Cruz can’t make the government work, period, would give some of them pause. (Plus, the idea that Cruz doesn’t have the strength to impose his will on his opponents would also square with the “Cruz is a beta male” attack from Trump that will inevitably come, maybe as soon as tomorrow night.)
Trump’s problem now, though, is that it’s not enough to keep his own supporters in the fold. This is wishful thinking:
Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski: "Sen. Cruz has become the flavor du jour of the week."
— Patrick Svitek (@PatrickSvitek) December 14, 2015
Trump’s 10 points behind in Iowa now according to the new Selzer poll. He can’t win anymore simply by keeping his own voters in his tent. He needs to start bringing other people’s voters in. And when you look at Selzer’s crosstabs, you find that Cruz is more likely to poach Trump voters than Trump is likely to poach Cruz’s. I’ve written half a dozen posts over the last few months wondering if it’s really true that Trump fans, who tend to be less dogmatically conservative than the average Republican, would shift to a rock-ribbed conservative like Cruz potentially. Yep, it’s true. In Iowa, at least.
Of course, voter preference is fluid and the Iowa caucuses are still six weeks away. But Cruz’s strategy of embracing, rather than attacking, Trump—even after Trump makes controversial or offensive statements—appears to have served him well, at least so far. In the new poll, respondents who say they support Trump have an extremely positive view of Cruz: 73 percent view him favorably, while 18 percent view him unfavorably. Asked to state their second-choice preference, these Trump supporters overwhelming pick Cruz (49 percent), with Rubio (16 percent) a distant second. If Trump falters or alienates his current supporters, they appear quite open to supporting Cruz.
But the reverse is less true: Cruz supporters aren’t nearly as enthused at the prospect of backing Trump. Overall, they do view him positively. Sixty percent have a favorable view of Trump, versus 33 percent who view him unfavorably. Yet asked to state their second choice of candidate, Cruz supporters are about as likely to favor Ben Carson (26 percent) as they are Trump (25 percent).
The new CW as of Saturday night, when the Selzer poll came out, is that Trump might be done if he loses Iowa. Trump’s mystique depends on being the consummate unconquerable winner; once that mystique is shattered, the theory goes, then all of his support crumbles. I don’t buy it, though. Iowa’s not known for picking nominees anymore; it’d be easy for Trump and his fans to dismiss it as a socially conservative outlier if he turns around and wins New Hampshire a week later. What might do him in, though, is if he gets roundly crushed by Cruz in Iowa, of which there now seems to be a nonzero possibility. Trump the strongman may lose a battle here and there but he always wins the war. Trump the strongman is not supposed to be routed, though, under any circumstances. If he is, the media’s going to go berserk during the week leading up to New Hampshire about how Trump is a paper tiger, Trumpmania is a fad, etc etc. Frankly, given how useful Trump might be to Cruz in New Hampshire in holding Rubio back, I wonder if Team Cruz is hoping they don’t win Iowa in a giant blowout either.
Exit question: Politico claims more leaked audio from one of Cruz’s fundraisers is coming this week, this time showing Cruz striking a “more moderate and inclusive tone on social issues than he does when speaking to Iowa audiences.” Does anyone think that’ll do any damage? What I mean is, does anyone think Ted Cruz doesn’t realize he’s being recorded at these things and is watching his language with that in mind? (Even in last week’s audio questioning Trump’s judgment, he was careful to say that he likes and respects Trump.) If anything, it’s probably Team Cruz itself that’s leaking this stuff. They know that many center-righties don’t like him but will consider supporting him if he and Trump are the final two. Leaking “moderate”-sounding stuff on social issues is Cruz’s way of winking at them that he’d govern less dogmatically than they might fear.