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For Ted Cruz, Iowa victory proves more than evangelical support

Monday’s caucuses validated Cruz’s appeal among religious voters. But they were also a testament to the power of his ground game and durability.
Senator Ted Cruz at a rally in Ames, Iowa, Jan. 30, 2016.
Senator Ted Cruz at a rally in Ames, Iowa, Jan. 30, 2016.

After a month of bruising attacks and sliding poll numbers, Ted Cruz is back on track.

The Texas senator pulled off a major victory in Iowa Monday night, winning the Republican caucuses with 28 percent support, four points ahead of billionaire real-estate mogul Donald Trump, who had been needling Cruz for weeks over his Canadian birthplace and Wall Street loans, and five points ahead of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whom no Iowa poll nor frontrunner perceived as a real threat in the Hawkeye State.

Cruz’s win was owed in large part to evangelical voters, who consistently play an outsize role in the first-in-the-nation nominating contest. More than 60 percent of Republican caucus-goers identified as evangelical Christians, according to entrance poll data, and Cruz won over about a third of them.

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The feat was well-deserved. For months, Cruz courted evangelical voters aggressively, creating a “national prayer team,” hosting a “religious liberty” rally, and deploying his pastor father to countless church gatherings. At the same time, he had to contend with numerous rivals who boast similarly strong ties to the evangelical community -- including retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (the last two of which were winners of the 2008 and 2012 Iowa caucuses, respectively).

There were “a lot of people competing in the evangelical lane,” said Cruz’s communications director Rick Tyler, using a favorite primary season metaphor, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Tuesday. “It was not an open lane for us.”

Indeed, Monday’s caucuses validated Cruz’s appeal among evangelical voters within a highly competitive field. But they were also a testament to the primacy of his ground game, as well as his ability to withstand a full-fledged assault from Donald Trump -- a quality few candidates possess. Though Cruz always had the money and organization to survive a loss in Iowa, his path to the nomination would have been far more difficult to see without a win there. Simply put: Cruz passed a crucial test on Monday and probably won’t be going away anytime soon as a result. 

“I think it’s too soon to talk about whether he has a chance for the nomination or not,” said David Caputo, president emeritus and a political science professor at Pace University. “But I think Ted Cruz will be in the race for some time, even in states without a significant evangelical base.”

Winning over Iowa’s evangelical voters was always a major portion of Cruz’s carefully designed and executed strategy. But he was never, as radio host and Cruz supporter Steve Deace put it, an “Iowa only candidate,” like some others in his party who’ve won the caucuses in recent years, but went on to lose the nomination.

“I think for the first time since George W. Bush in 2000, we have launched a candidate in Iowa who is capable of finishing the task,” Deace said. “Ted Cruz leaves Iowa with more cash on hand than the national committee… About 90 percent of the most prominent evangelical leaders in politics are backing him, he already received the endorsement of the most prestigious Tea Party group in the country (the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund). He is well positioned to be the nominee. He is not a hail mary pass; he is a well-oiled machine.”

Later this month, Cruz stands to perform very well in South Carolina, where, as in Iowa, evangelical voters account for a similarly large percentage of Republican primary voters. He’s then hoping to run the table in the March 1 “SEC primary,” when several Southern states will vote. Cruz already has two major swings through the region under his belt -- the first being in August, well before any other candidate would seriously campaign in the area.

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Beyond Southern evangelicals, Cruz is confident his message is resonating with libertarians and “Reagan Democrats,” or working-class moderate voters. He’s polling surprisingly well in New Hampshire, where the RealClearPolitics' average of the latest polls has him tied for second with Ohio Gov. John Kasich at 11.5 percent. He probably won’t win there, but he could exceed expectations and cut into Trump, who’s up by 20 percentage points according to RealClearPolitics’ average, as a candidate.

“The most encouraging thing we’re seeing here in Iowa, but also nationwide, is the old Reagan coalition coming back together,” Cruz told NBC News’ Hallie Jackson after his victory speech Monday. “We’re seeing conservatives and evangelicals and libertarians and ‘Reagan Democrats’ all uniting. And we need a nominee who can unify those philosophical divisions.”

Money and ground game have always been major strengths of the Cruz campaign. According to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission through the end of the 2015, Cruz has more cash on hand -- $18.7 million -- than any other other Republican presidential candidate. Back in October, he became the first candidate to name chairmen in all of the 171 counties that make up the crucial early voting states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. In Iowa, he had 12,000 people on the ground, according to Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler, making 20,000 calls a day and knocking on 2,000 doors a day. And hours before the caucuses, Cruz visited his 99th county in the Hawkeye State, completing the last stop of what's known as the “Full Grassley.”

But all that work looked like it was slipping away in the first month of 2016. After surging to first place in Iowa polls, Cruz became a persistent target for Trump, who questioned his eligibility to run for president and hammered him for failing to properly disclose a $1 million Goldman Sachs loan during his 2012 Senate campaign.

“Based on the fact that Ted Cruz was born in Canada and is therefore a ‘natural born Canadian,' did he borrow unreported loans from C banks?” Trump asked in a representative insult.

Cruz also took a hit from Iowa’s popular Gov. Terry Branstad, who urged Republicans to vote for literally anyone else, based off Cruz’s opposition to ethanol subsidies. Cruz’s last debate performance before the caucuses was widely panned. And to top it all off, he trailed Trump in eight straight polls, including the gold standard Des Moines Register.

A loss in Iowa, while not fatal, would have been disastrous for Cruz.

“It was almost a must-win for Cruz,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “Part of it is the outsize evangelical population of Iowa, but also the caucus format -- he was tailor-made for Iowa. If he couldn’t win there, it might of been a damaging blow to his chances.”

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Thankfully, for Cruz, grassroots organizing and his own durability carried the day. And he might be a stronger candidate for it.

“I’ve never seen a candidate hit by more angles,” said Deace. “To emerge from that gladiator arena as a victor, I’d say he’s in pretty good shape moving forward.”