Is South Carolina a Must-Win for Ted Cruz?

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) (photo credit: Gage Skidmore)
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) (photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

Must Ted Cruz win the February 20th South Carolina primary in order to have a clear path to the Republican nomination? In a word, no. While a distant second to Donald Trump could prove catastrophic, that is highly unlikely. Cruz need only place highly enough against the favored Trump and let the rest of field battle for elimination.

Here’s why:

1.) Cruz has the cash to compete. He invested little campaign cash or time in New Hampshire but came away with an unexpected third place finish, and surprised by finishing ahead of both Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. 

The entire week prior to the vote, Cruz’s polling numbers remained remarkably steady while others jockeyed for position. It is testament to a smart campaign strategy, knowing they wouldn’t win but working and investing just enough to make a good showing. And while final percentages of the top five finishers is all most people see, the numbers behind them tell a different story. NRO details the carnage to the other campaigns:

Even more important, Cruz spent very few resources on New Hampshire: less than $1 million combined between the campaign and super PACs. Compare that to Bush, whose combined efforts spent $35 million in New Hampshire, while Christie spent $18 million, Rubio $15 milllion and Kasich $12 million. All of them were beaten by Cruz in a state that was supposed to be a bad fit for him.

Chris Christie bet it all and lost, and he has suspended his campaign, as has Carly Fiorina. John Kasich also invested heavily in both time and cash. Despite the splash of his second place finish, his path to South Carolina is already uphill as he moves into less friendly territory than moderate New Hampshire and is cash poor to boot. Kasich has been a 2 percent blip on the South Carolina political radar since January 1, and he will struggle to translate his Champion of the Establishment N.H. finish to a meaningful showing. I expect him to drop out with a fifth place finish (sixth if Ben Carson remains aboard to compete) and little cash left.

Rubio and Bush also spent heavily, and while they still have the cash and organizations to compete, one has to wonder how long their donors will stay aboard funding third and fourth place finishes. They both must outperform expectations in South Carolina to survive to Nevada, and those expectations are high. In fact, South Carolina may have become the firewall neither expected it to be.

2.) Cruz is organized to compete. Again, from NRO:

Cruz enters the South Carolina primary with by far the largest war chest of any GOP candidate in hard campaign dollars and has by far the most extensive grassroots fundraising network to add to that total.

The largely under-reported story of this cycle is the extensive size and reach of the Cruz campaign’s grassroots networks. They are delivering cash ($3 million since Iowa alone) and a phalanx of volunteers in every county of each primary state. They delivered a convincing Iowa win and then quietly executed a better-than-expected finish in New Hampshire. And Cruz has invested heavily to build an 8,000+ volunteer base in conservative-friendly South Carolina in preparation for a broadcast and social media air war and data-driven GOTV effort.

While Rubio and Bush both have solid ground games in the state, they are likely to be busy working overtime to manage their internecine struggle that has become the new undercard to Trump vs. Cruz:

And both seem determined as ever to take the other one down.

“South Carolina is gonna be a bloodbath. Jeb and his people wanted to attack Marco in New Hampshire about abortion? Let’s see how that plays down there. And then there’s Common Core,” one Rubio adviser said.

[…]

While Bush’s advisers were overjoyed at beating Rubio, Bush seemed to have trouble making his fourth-place showing look like a win in a state where he predicted he’d win, spent more than anyone else and had about 100 events.

Jeb has marshaled resources, put seriously experienced operatives on the ground, and has called in reinforcements — most notably former President George W. Bush, who is very popular with the state’s large military population, and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham — to help him break through the 10 percent ceiling in the state under which he’s been laboring the past month.

Marco — averaging slightly better than Bush at 12 percent since January 1 — is banking on popular South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, and conservative icon Rep. Trey Gowdy, whose upstate 4th Congressional District includes 15 percent of the Republican primary vote and the state’s largest media market, to help deliver voters to his side.

3.) Cruz will compete directly with Trump. An interesting data point between Iowa and New Hampshire has emerged, though it remains to be seen if it will be an exception or a rule. In Iowa, Cruz took on Donald Trump directly for the first time. Cruz won. In New Hampshire, no one took on Trump, choosing instead a back alley brawl while Trump watched safely from his limousine. Trump won. While Rubio and Bush fight amongst themselves and Kasich tries to sell his moderate brand as “new and improved conservatism,” Trump and Cruz will go mano a mano in the main event:

For weeks, Cruz has talked about South Carolina as the site of a rubber match between himself and Trump, assuming they would each notch a win in the first two early voting states. With that scenario now a reality, Cruz’s campaign appears poised for its fiercest confrontations yet with the billionaire in South Carolina, a state already associated with bare-knuckle politics.

Watch for Ted Cruz to be much more directly aggressive, drawing Trump out on specific policy positions. Cruz knows he has only a short window to prove Trump’s New Hampshire victory was, well, a New Hampshire victory, with moderates and independents carrying the day. His ploy will be to expose Trump as inconsistent and shallow, just as he did in Iowa. And considering the heavy Christian conservative base in South Carolina is similar to that of Iowa, it’s a message that can resonate.

…there are signs that the same Christian conservatives-focused approach Cruz used to surge in Iowa, largely at Carson’s expense, is also making him a formidable candidate in South Carolina, a state in which 65 percent of Republican primary voters in 2012 identified themselves in exit polls as “born-again or evangelical Christians.” Evangelicals are particularly concentrated here in the deeply religious Upstate region.

Furthermore, Cruz is not only reaching out to Evangelicals; he’s organizing pastors to remind them to vote:

Mike Gonzalez, the pastor in charge of Cruz’s evangelical outreach in South Carolina, said he expects the “lion’s share” of evangelical support in the state to go to Cruz. The senator already has more than 300 pastors backing him across the state, with more than one pastor behind Cruz in many counties, Gonzalez added.

And one final point: Cruz knows if he goes after Trump, that will suck all the media air out of the Bush vs. Rubio vs. Kasich battle. It’s a win-win for Cruz in South Carolina, even if he doesn’t finish first.

Clint Cline is the president of Design4, a national media and messaging firm based in Florida.