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Eye On Candidates
February 25, 2016

Just How Far Up the Creek Is Cruz?

After winning the Iowa caucuses it appeared that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was well positioned to become the leading alternative to GOP frontrunner Donald Trump. A better-than-expected third place finish in New Hampshire, coupled with the apparent faltering of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – his chief rival for the not-Trump vote – had some observers thinking that the race was playing out exactly as needed for Cruz to win.

Two and a half weeks later, few would make the same assessment. Following disappointing third-place finishes in South Carolina and Nevada, falling behind Rubio in both contests, many are suggesting Cruz faces a do-or-die moment in next week’s Super Tuesday contests (also known as the SEC Primary), including Texas itself. CNN offers the following on his potential problems in his home state:

Why Ted Cruz is in trouble in Texas

Of all the states, Texas was the one Ted Cruz was not supposed to have to worry about….

But thanks to Donald Trump and Marco Rubio, Cruz's shot at becoming President may end in Texas.

Cruz, despite his appeal as a native son ideologically in sync with a ruby red Republican base, could very well lose the Texas primary next week, a setback that would strike at the core of Cruz's southern political strategy.

Cruz still is favored to win the primary, according to the article, but instead of walking away with a majority of the delegates it could be a simple plurality. The article describes the Rubio campaign’s effort to skim a number of delegates:

Rubio's team recognizes it is unlikely to win as many delegates in Texas. But although some of Texas' 155 delegates are awarded statewide, most are distributed via congressional district: a candidate who earns more than 50% in one of the state's districts wins all three delegates in the district, and anyone who earns below 20% wins zero. So if Rubio's camp can surgically target Cruz and minimize his vote percentage in key districts, they can keep him from building a delegate lead on Super Tuesday.

“You can get nowhere near first place in Texas and still vacuum up a whole lot of delegates just because of the size of the state,” said Todd Harris, Rubio's chief strategist. “We're under no illusions that there won't be a resounding Ted Cruz victory, but there are things that we think we can do on the margins to sweep up some delegates -- and we're going to do it.”

Earlier in the week The Texas Tribune also featured an article suggesting Cruz has his work cut out for him in Texas:

Texas, long considered a place where Cruz could run up his delegate count on March 1, no longer appears to be entirely comfortable territory for its junior senator. With just over a week until its primary — and many ballots already cast early — Cruz's grip on his home state does not appear ironclad, even with all his rivals with major Texas ties officially out of the race.

In interviews Monday with more than a half dozen Texas-based GOP strategists, a consensus emerged: Cruz is still favored to win Texas, but it may not be as easy or resounding a victory as he would like. They uniformly cited billionaire Donald Trump as Cruz's biggest threat at home, especially after a South Carolina primary in which Trump took the gold by a wide margin, giving him another burst of momentum as the nominating contest heads deeper into the South….

Some of the strategists offered anecdotal evidence of a tightening race between Cruz and Trump gleaned from their own polling in certain legislative districts, as well as conversations with activists, donors and voters. Regardless, they noted it was remarkable that Cruz facing serious competition in his home state has even become a topic of conversation.  

Another CNN article suggested that Cruz could be setting himself up for a big disappointment in the remaining states voting next Tuesday:

Ted Cruz on Wednesday defended his path to victory even as his chances on Super Tuesday look increasingly dour, doing little to tamp down expectations of how he'll do on a day he calls the “most important of the entire presidential election.”…

Cruz's strategy has been thrown into question after failing to sufficiently consolidate evangelical support in Nevada and especially in South Carolina, a state with a similar ideological profile to the others he's hoping to win. Cruz maintained Wednesday, however, that he was taking none of the so-called SEC states for granted.

According to the Houston Chronicle, Cruz is in need of a “come-from-behind” victory next week:

For Ted Cruz, the time has come for “phase two” – his plan to take a stand in Dixie, where he still has a lot of ground to make up….

Cruz signaled his broader Southern strategy last summer with a high-profile bus tour that stopped in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

With the exceptions of Texas and Arkansas, Trump leads in all those states. The real estate tycoon also won South Carolina by 10 points and holds a 6-point lead in Virginia, where Rubio is slightly ahead of Cruz in second place.

In Georgia, where Cruz had been running second to Trump in the polls, a new poll conducted after the South Carolina primary showed Rubio sliding ahead of Cruz.

The only southern Super Tuesday state outside Texas where Cruz holds a lead is Arkansas, which he visits Wednesday. Back home, a University of Texas poll released Tuesday shows Cruz ahead of Trump 37 percent to 29 percent, with Marco Rubio trailing at 15 percent….

But the Texas poll was conducted last week before Rubio edged out Cruz for second place in South Carolina. In the following days, Rubio has seen a wave of endorsements from old-line Republican backers of Jeb Bush, who dropped out after a fourth-place finish in South Carolina….

But many of the second-phase states where Cruz plans to make his stand in the South - including Texas - look very much like South Carolina, where more than a third of the evangelical vote went to Trump, compared to 26 percent for Cruz.

Both Cruz and Rubio are essentially waiting for the other to drop out so they can take on Trump one-on-one. It may wind up the case that simply by having his “moment of truth” come earlier in the nomination process with the SEC Primary, Cruz will fall victim to the high expectations he himself set for his campaign and leave Rubio as the primary challenger to Trump. A strong win in Texas and a mixed showing in the remaining states next Tuesday, meaning winning Arkansas and coming in second place in a number of other states, is probably enough for him to declare his strategy a success. A narrow victory or even a loss in Texas, combined with a string of third-place finishes, will likely be a significant blow to his hopes – one he may not be able to recover from.