After sustaining weeks of relentless attacks from Donald Trump and an accompanying media pile-on, Ted Cruz desperately needs to seize the initiative.
But that task may have gotten harder with the sudden announcement Tuesday night from Trump that he’ll skip the Thursday GOP debate, the last before the Iowa Caucus.
The Texas senator has successfully survived the barrage from Trump, using his high buffer of favorability to deflect the attacks and stave off a collapse in the polls. But with only days until the first votes of 2016 are cast in Iowa, simply surviving is not enough. Cruz needs to change the conversation and momentum of the race, and the GOP debate Thursday was his best chance.
Cruz is anywhere from 2 to 10 percentage points behind Trump in Iowa, according to the most recent polls. A strong, well-oiled ground game can increase a candidate’s draw by 2 to 5 points by turning out supporters who may otherwise sit out the actual voting. In Iowa, the ground game can be even more important, and closer to the 5-point maximum benefit, because organization within the caucus hall can win over the soft supporters of other candidates.
Still, an operation on the ground is just half of the turnout equation on election day. The other is momentum, and right now, Trump has it all.
While Cruz has essentially remained static in Iowa, Trump has steadily gained ground. The first two January polls, taken before Trump unleashed his media blitz on Cruz, showed the mogul at 23-24 percent. The most recent polls now put Trump anywhere from 31 to 37 percent.
An ascendant candidate is the candidate with fired up supporters aching to hit the voting booth or caucus hall. A static candidate or candidate in decline is more likely to have demoralized supporters. Those supporters may be more reluctant to show up and less enthusiastic in seeking out and winning over undecided voters.
Abandoning the debate was classic Trump. The punditry will spend the next two days speculating whether the move will hurt or help Trump, ask opponents their take on the move, and put all post-debate analysis through the lens of the Trump absence. Trump will once again drive, and in fact be, the entire conversation. Barring bold action from Cruz, the move will allow Trump to effortlessly dominate the news through the Monday caucuses.
In probably his best possible move, Cruz has now challenged Trump to a one-on-one debate. But that sounds much like Mark Antony challenging Cesar Octavian to single combat from his besieged and defeated position in Cleopatra’s palace. No one doubted Antony was the better warrior, but the war was already over.
With Trump on the rise and Cruz steady and organized, Iowa has been nearly a pure tossup, with a slight lean in favor of Trump. Momentum is fickle, and in Trump’s case it is not an unstoppable avalanche, despite what the punditry would have you believe. But the debate-skipping move has upended any carefully laid plans Cruz may have imagined to seize the initiative.
Cruz needs to press Trump soon and forcefully to prevent Trump’s debate absence from being a death sentence.
One critical tool Cruz could have used is likely off the table thanks to Trump’s timing. Network television ads take time to produce, and even more importantly, most stations require ads be submitted several days in advance of broadcast. That means most of the campaign ads on TV in Iowa are cooked, and cannot be changed and deployed before the vote Monday.
Cruz’s last best hope is to barnstorm the media, hammering Trump for cowardice and megalomania. He needs to play up the two-man race and define Trump’s move as gutless and an insult to the voters in interviews on every outlet that will have him. If he can define the move as a negative, Cruz can maintain some hope to win Iowa on the back of his field operation.
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The feat will not be easy. Trump will dominate the coverage just by skipping the debate — even if some Iowans may be naturally offended by the petty move. And he will win more media coverage that night if he goes through with his stated plan: To hold a fundraising event at the same time to collect money for wounded warriors and veterans.
If Cruz fails to define the move and generate outrage among his own supporters, motivating them to head to the caucuses ready to fight, he will likely lose Iowa, and the race for the nomination may be all but over.
But if Cruz can can gain the upper hand in the battle over Trump’s withdrawal, the fight for the nomination may just be starting.