I like what a Twitter pal had to say about this: “You don’t always need to play 3D chess when your opponent is playing checkers.”
For months, Cruz fans like me have wondered whether he might have beaten Trump if not for that dastardly Marco Rubio’s presence in the race. Maybe it’s time to revise that question. Would Trump have won if Ted Cruz hadn’t run?
Indeed, at one crucial point, a rival campaign aided Trump’s rise. After Trump’s loss in the Iowa caucuses, Jeff Roe, campaign manager for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, called Lewandowski to warn him that polls they had done showed Trump’s support dropping in the coming New Hampshire primary because Trump was attacking other candidates too much.
Trump was not doing his own polls, Lewandowski said, so the insight provided key guidance which allowed them to recalibrate strategy.
A loss in New Hampshire might have crippled Trump. Instead, his victory there, followed by triumphs in Nevada and South Carolina, virtually assured him the nomination.
Roe, in an interview, confirmed Lewandowski’s account. At that point in the campaign, “we needed Trump” to defeat other candidates, he said, ruefully.
“Other candidates” is code for “Marco Rubio.” Team Cruz was always more worried about Rubio, the guy who could win votes on the right and the center, than they were about Trump. Eventually, they thought, Trump would sabotage himself: He’d say something or do something that would shock Republican voters, forcing them to finally come to their senses and say, “no way, not this guy.” You could count on him to self-destruct or, in a worst-case scenario, to fade gradually as the field shrank and the lone remaining non-Trump contender consolidated all of the remaining anti-Trump votes among the base. Rubio might not self-destruct, though. He had to be destroyed. And step one to destroying him was blocking him in the early state he was most likely to win, New Hampshire. Cruz, a dogmatic conservative, was never going to win there — but Trump might. So Cruz and Jeff Roe made a Faustian bargain to try to stop Rubio by handing that internal polling to Trump. And … it worked, I guess. You stopped Rubio, Ted. Congratulations. As Ross Douthat likes to say, good ol’ Ted Cruz always has a plan. Not a good plan, but a plan.
What’s noteworthy about this story, apart from the sheer lengths to which Team Cruz was willing to go to try to help Trump, was how late in the cycle it happened. Cruz spent the second half of 2015 fulsomely buddying up to Trump, again on the assumption that Trump would melt down on his own initiative eventually. The friendlier Cruz behaved towards him, the more likely Trump’s voters would be to migrate to Cruz, as the other populist in the field, once Trump was out. But that was over with after New Year’s; with Iowa a month away and Trump still strong in the polls, Cruz realized he couldn’t maintain the buddy-buddy act any longer. He had to start attacking. So he did, and he did it well enough to engineer a win in the Iowa caucuses despite Trump leading in most polls there before the big vote. And yet, despite having become keenly aware by that point of just how durable Trump’s popularity was, and knowing the sort of momentum a win in New Hampshire would provide him with, Cruz still decided to tempt fate by handing over that internal polling in NH and helping Trump to victory there. He must have assumed, foolishly, that he’d win the showdown with Trump in evangelical-heavy South Carolina and that that would all but finish Trump off. That was Cruz’s key strategic error, I think, believing that Christian conservatives would turn on Trump when forced to choose between him and Cruz. Makes me wonder what would have happened if Trump had beaten Cruz in Iowa to begin with. He would have gotten a bounce in New Hampshire from that, but he also presumably wouldn’t have gotten that internal polling from Cruz that helped him change course. Maybe he would have run out of gas in New Hampshire and that in turn would have hurt his momentum before South Carolina.
He got some lucky breaks, helped along by his opponents’ strategic idiocy and hubris. I don’t mean to take anything away from his win in saying that; all winners get some breaks, and there’s probably no other Republican who could have cracked Hillary’s blue wall in the Rust Belt. But there were various points at which, if things had gone a little differently, the outcome on November 8th is in doubt. It starts with Cruz’s “bromance” strategy with Trump last year. If he had attacked Trump from the start as the RINO to end all RINOs, would talk radio’s posture towards Trump have been different? Would that have influenced how some grassroots Republicans viewed Trump? If Rubio hadn’t had that brain fart onstage in New Hampshire in responding to Chris Christie, would he have continued to climb in the NH polls, either winning the state or finishing a strong enough second to overperform in South Carolina? If James Comey had read the statute on mishandling classified information the way it was written, would Hillary have been out of the race in July, replaced by a more populist Democrat like Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden? If Anthony Weiner hadn’t been allegedly sexted with a teen, triggering a federal investigation of his computer, would Comey’s late October letter about reopening the investigation into Clinton’s emails have been issued? If Hillary and her team weren’t such out-of-touch idiots, would they have spent a little more time protecting the Rust Belt states instead of trying to win Arizona? What if the “Access Hollywood” tape had emerged a week before the Iowa caucus, with New Hampshire set to vote soon after? What if the sexual-assault accusers had come forward a week before South Carolina went to the polls? It’ll all make a fine Harry Turtledove novel someday.