The Anatomy of a Dead Campaign: The Ted Cruz Story

Ted Cruz’s campaign is officially dead. The death certificate lists the time of death as around 3:45 P.M. EST on April 27th, 2016. The person that spoke the eulogy at the funeral was Carly Fiorina.

What was the cause of death? Well, we’re going to have to delve deeper. It’s time to examine the life of the Ted Cruz campaign, because this was a lifestyle-induced casualty. It was much like how an alcoholic or a heroin addict’s lifestyle leads him to his own demise.

Ted Cruz campaign dead Carly Fiorina

Strategic Background:

Ted Cruz launched his campaign with the slogan “courageous conservatives reigniting the promise of America.” The slogan itself has some problems, but its purpose was to promote Ted Cruz’s personal brand as a courageous and reliable conservative that has a record of standing up to the Washington establishment for principles that conservatives hold dear. Because of the popular revolt that is the 2016 election cycle, it was a decent brand which could make an offer to an electorate in revolt. This is playing the strategic level of political warfare, that is, the mobilization of voters, properly.

On the other hand, the Ted Cruz campaign had numerous problems. Firstly, while Cruz could feasibly make a strategic offer to an electorate in revolt, that revolt is centered partly around the dysfunction and partisanship in Washington, of which, Ted Cruz is emblematic, as one of the things he’s most famous for is for the government shutdown in 2013 over Obamacare. This was popular with those voters that identify as “very conservative,” but not with other demographics, demographics which would be needed on the strategic level of the campaign in a general election. Ted Cruz’s association with the religious right, a demographic increasingly anathema to the broader American electorate, was also a big problem. This electorate carries sparsely populated states/regions, which have been Ted Cruz’s strongest centers of power, but isn’t anywhere near big enough to win 270 electoral votes in a general election. Even the South has been shown to not fall so strictly in line with the religious right, as people previously believed, due to the Trump campaign’s success there. This was seen in Ted Cruz’s failure throughout the region except for his home state of Texas.

How could Ted Cruz feasibly be a victor in a general election?

Ted Cruz courageous conservatives logo

Operations:

The Cruz campaign’s operations were shrewd, just like the man himself. He knew that he lacked the name recognition of some more notable competitors, like Jeb Bush and certainly Donald Trump, and therefore had to at first stage a more Guerilla Marketing-style campaign. Throughout the raucous “Summer of Trump,” he bided his time. He knew he couldn’t compete with the massive social proof that Donald Trump was bringing to his rallies or the huge war chest that the Bush machine built up in the Right to Rise SuperPAC. Instead, he kept a low profile, energizing his own core base of evangelical conservatives that have traditionally defied the establishment and solidifying the floor beneath his campaign. While other evangelicals rallied behind figures like Mice Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and most notably, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz knew that each of those candidates fitted the profile of the trope that he needed to do his best to avoid – the insurgent “flameout” candidate. He believed that eventually, these candidates would go by the wayside, which would allow him to consolidate their voters by being the strongest of the religious right’s candidates.

To do this, and to raise his profile more in general, he took his strengths at key points – those being the debates, and leveraged them for maximum impact. Ted Cruz is an excellent debater, and he knows it. His frame is generally strong, he has a few charismatic characteristics, and, given the current political atmosphere, he knew his brand and offer would be well-received by many voters who hadn’t known of him before.

To solidify the raising of his profile with the free publicity of the debates, Ted Cruz amassed the most formidable campaign organization and ground game in the 2016 cycle. These operations would then be able move his strategic aims – turning out voters – forward.

In all of these assumptions, Ted Cruz was correct. Everyone agrees that as the debate season went on, Ted Cruz did very well, and indeed, his poll numbers rose slowly but surely throughout the fall and winter leading up to voting time. In one assumption, however, he was disastrously wrong, and it eventually led to the death of his campaign.

Ted Cruz, like everyone else in politics, believed that Donald Trump was also an insurgent candidate who would “flameout.” He furthermore believed that Donald Trump’s anti-establishment voters would translate nicely over to his campaign when the inevitable “flameout” occurred (a tape came out of him saying this exact thing), when in fact, Trump’s voters are a different kind of anti-establishment faction which isn’t naturally in line with the religious right.

To secure those voters, Ted Cruz was chummy with Donald Trump throughout 2015. He didn’t want to attack Donald Trump, because engaging in field actions against him risked alienating his voters, who had consistently kept him atop the polls. The Guerilla Marketing approach was kept intact.

And yet…the much-awaited Trump “flameout” never came.

Suddenly, a huge portion of Ted Cruz’s strategy evaporated, and he didn’t have enough time to retool his operations and tactics to account for this before voting started. The results have been ad-hoc actions coming from the Cruz campaign, with few exceptions, ever since.

Donald Trump Ted Cruz debate Stumped

The Tactical Gutter & A Strange Offer:

Because his strategic considerations and fortunes were evaporating fast, Ted Cruz was now forced to let tactics, and tactics alone, dictate the outcome of events. He first demonstrated this when he used his ground game operations in Iowa to pull voters out. He sent “voter violation” notices and spread rumors that Ben Carson had dropped out.

While these tactics managed to win him Iowa, they were bad for his operations and strategy because they lent credence to him being untrustworthy, in contrast to his “TRUSTED” headline. Donald Trump hammered it home all the more by calling him “lyin’ Ted Cruz” for months on end afterward.

The campaign throughout February and March went largely as expected. The Ted Cruz campaign won sparsely populated states amenable to the religious right, while Donald Trump won more densely populated states with his nationalistic, populist message. As a result, Donald Trump was winning the delegate race by significant margins and moving slowly, but seemingly inexorably, toward 1,237 to secure the Republican Party’s nomination.

Ted Cruz began to show some strength in the latter days of March, after Marco Rubio dropped out of the race and Donald Trump made some errors, such as his retweet of a side-by-side comparison between his wife Melania and Heidi Cruz and his abortion gaffe with Chris Matthews. With Marco Rubio’s absence and John Kasich running an embarrassing fourth in a three-man race (which he still is as of the end of April), the Republican establishment and the “#NeverTrump” crowd seemingly had no alternative. Ted Cruz now, by default, had an offer as being the only feasible “non-Trump” candidate, making for a strange alliance between the religious right and some of the establishment, Wall Street/Washington type Republicans who were originally the target out-group to the Ted Cruz campaign offer.

As The Fates made for this strange turn of events, the Wisconsin primary was looming. It was seen as a crucial benchmark to stop Donald Trump’s strategic advance, and the establishment in the state, which included Governor Scott Walker, a very popular figure to the Republican base, came out big for the Cruz campaign. This, combined with Trump’s previous errors, led to a decisive victory for Ted Cruz.

For a while, it looked that finally, Donald Trump’s momentum was being halted, and that he could be stopped in some way.

Ted Cruz Scott Walker Wisconsin Stumped

Endgame:

It seemed that after his victory in Wisconsin, Ted Cruz was given a new lease on life. New operations and strategies looked open, and he could get his campaign out of the tactical gutter dictated by Donald Trump. Although New York, with its huge haul of 95 delegates, was looming, and his “New York values” comment in response to the evaporation of his campaign assumptions was a strategic disaster, he nevertheless could have done something to keep the initiative in his hands. He could have thought in the operational and strategic contexts to make his inevitable losses in New York and the following northeastern states as minimal as he could before pivoting to a more favorable state in Indiana.

Instead, the campaign did what was likely the most comfortable thing to its operator. It went to Colorado and Wyoming, used its ground game organization, and hauled off with the delegates in those states. It did the same in Louisiana, a state Trump won, taking out some unpledged delegates and ultimately walking away with more than Trump attained in his “victory.”

This was the campaign’s death blow.

First, the optics of it were just dirty. Ted Cruz vaunted that “rules are rules, why didn’t you understand the rules, Donald?”

Suddenly, Ted Cruz and his campaign were echoing the language of Reince Preibus and the RNC. The fact that the campaign was now being backed by establishment figures like Lindsey Graham and the Bushes only made it that much worse. Now not only had his strategic bedrock evaporated, his core offer evaporated. The market wasn’t buying. In one fell swoop, Ted Cruz destroyed his personal brand and his offer. He bought right into Trump’s grand plan.

It showed in the polls. In New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, Donald Trump overperformed his polls while Cruz tanked. While this region would have never been favorable to him anyway, he’s tanked nationally as well. Mathematically eliminated from securing the nomination through a fair election, he now has negative social proof.

The collusion with the embarrassing John Kasich only added to the pain. Ted Cruz made a name for himself lambasting what he calls “the Washington cartel,” only to now engage in cartel-like behavior himself with that same establishment. This was the repeat signal that his offer was dead and gone, and that he was “just another politician” like the rest of them. Instead of being a fighter for them, he was now taking away the people’s choice. It was a perfect storm of bad branding.

In other words, Donald Trump cut his tactical losses in Wisconsin and began moving onto operations and strategy. He used the Cruz campaign’s actions in Colorado, Louisiana, and Wyoming, and later the collusion, as fuel for his own campaign, which reinforced his own anti-establishment message and offer. This moved the strategic level of voters.

Cruz was instead stuck in the tactical realm. He lost sight of the big picture. His most decisive victory, much like those Greek heroes who fought at Troy, was ultimately the harbinger of his own doom.

And so we look at the death of the Cruz campaign. He rolled out Carly Fiorina as his vice presidential pick. This could have made something of a difference if he timed it to just after his Wisconsin victory, where the “Trump is anti-woman” narrative was at its peak. This would have been going beyond tactics and moving into operations and strategy once again. Instead, Ted Cruz missed his big chance to formulate an alternative plan for those two higher levels of warfare and chose to stick to tactics – Colorado’s convention and so on. Instead, the rollout of Carly Fiorina was relegated to the tactical level – responding to Trump’s own tactics, letting those tactics dictate operations and strategy. It now didn’t look like an astute play to move perception and voters. Instead, it looked desperate and like an attempt to supplicate and pander, to distract from his mathematical elimination. Furthermore, Trump has already attempted to soften his image, and will be interviewed by Megyn Kelly, so emblematic of his “woman problem,” shortly.

The selection of Carly Fiorina as his vice president will get Ted Cruz exactly zero extra votes. Aside from the utter desperation optics, there are a few other reasons:

  1. She’s even more unlikable than Hillary Clinton. Few women will identify with her.
  2. She’s basically an establishment character. Her biggest contribution to the debates last fall was to assist in the race to start World War III. The Republican electorate isn’t too keen on that, nor is the general population.
  3. Aside from that, no one outside the establishment and media even knows or remembers who she is. Zero personal brand or brand authority.

I predict Ted Cruz will lose Indiana, and even if he wins it, it will be too little too late to stop Donald Trump from getting the nomination. It simply wouldn’t be believable. Unpledged delegates will soon start to board the Trump Train.

Lessons:

  1. The religious right is a very narrow electorate which can only usually carry sparsely populated states/regions like Nebraska, Idaho, and Iowa. It’s not a base from which to build a winning general election coalition, or even one in the Rpublican Party (Trump’s nationalist base is the largest tent).
  2. The South has been revealed as not being strictly aligned with the religious right. The South is more an American nationalist/traditionalist region.
  3. You’d better have a strategic plan B if your core demographics seem to evaporate.
  4. Don’t ever get off your core offer and message with bad optics, intentional or not. Cruz did so in places like Colorado. He should have made a call for a fair election that doesn’t favor party insiders going in. This would have nullified some of Trump’s criticism.
  5. Desperation breeds more desperation, and the people have very sensitive antenna to it.
  6. Any perception that you are taking away the choice and power of a group you’re attempting to influence will kill your efforts at moving them.

So for Cruz it may have been a fun ride, but the ride is over. He made the crucial mistakes of letting tactics dictate operations and strategy and banking on a niche market that wouldn’t let him win the general election, and they cost him.

To avoid making the same mistakes should he desire to run in the future, and if you’d like to avoid these same marketing and influence mistakes which will kill your dreams, he/you should read Stumped: How Trump Triumphed.