SHAFTAN: Lessons From The Ted Cruz Campaign

A guest post from Rick Shaftan, a North Carolina-based pollster and media consultant who worked this year with the pro-Cruz Courageous Conservatives PAC.

Ted Cruz, the ultimate outsider, was totally positioned to win in 2016 — even against a ruthless candidate like Trump. And he would have, but for a few missteps that gnawed at Cruz’s support base and demoralized his supporters.


Cruz survived an Iowa Caucus where he was the subject of vile ads run by a pro-Huckabee SuperPAC as well as Trump’s media blitz. And the win was a significant because Cruz was not expected to win.

But his victory was overshadowed by the Ben Carson story that Trump exploited in the week of New Hampshire and momentum was lost. And only because Cruz went on defense instead of offense.

Instead of apologizing to Carson, Cruz should have apologized to Carson’s supporters for having a candidate whose staff was so inept as to put out a story like that right before voting. And why was Ted in Des Moines for caucus night? Why didn’t he hop a jet after speaking to a caucus and address his Iowa supporters from the tarmac in Manchester NH?

The sloppy New Hampshire rollout (and virtually no campaign paid media at ridiculously low candidate rates) led to a disappointing finish on February Ninth and a break in momentum leading into South Carolina.


Less than stellar debate performances and a revitalized Marco Rubio put Cruz on the defense in South Carolina. When one pro-Cruz SuperPAC went on the offense against Trump on his support for “putting the Confederate Flag in a museum” and for so-called “Transgender Bathrooms,” the Cruz campaign publicly denounced these efforts rather than encouraging them. It’s this disconnect that cost Cruz the South.

Had Cruz gone on the offense on these issues instead of denouncing these attacks, he would have had a solid wedge to break the back of the Trump base in the Bible Belt. That never happened.

Trump proceeded to win South Carolina, and then Nevada, and every Southern State but Texas while the Cruz campaign kept insisting a ground game was going to win in the end. The Trump campaign had no ground game, and kicked Cruz’s ass in nearly every primary.


Political candidates for federal office get insanely low “candidate rates” on broadcast TV and radio, yet the Cruz campaign didn’t even take advantage of these ads — even on talk radio — in key states like New Hampshire and barely even in South Carolina. The slack was picked up by SuperPACs who pay a much higher rate. And SuperPAC ads are never as effective as candidate ads.

But the ultimate insult was narrowly losing the Kentucky Caucus and hearing the campaign take pride on how well they did considering they spent no money. It would have been nicer if they had spent money and won in Kentucky. And Kentucky was not the only state they blew off, either.


The Cruz campaign talked about “evangelicals” but these numbers combine two very diverse groups. Those Christians who attend weekly services were strong for Cruz. Those who didn’t weren’t. And among those who attend weekly services, Cruz’s strength was much higher among the Main Street Baptists attracted to Mike Huckabee than the non-denominationals who attend Victory Bible Chapel in a converted gas station two miles out of town where Ron Paul had been much stronger.

Wealthier suburban evangelicals made up the base of the Cruz support, but the more blue collar Christians on the other side of town whose views on alcohol, swearing and premarital sex are more permissive than their wealthier neighbors were for Trump.

That’s why the attacks on Planned Parenthood and Transgender Bathrooms went nowhere with the Trump base. Just because these issues were important to Christians backing Cruz didn’t mean they were important to those Christians backing Trump.


With all the emphasis on Christians, pastors and, as Cruz repeatedly mentioned in conference calls and speeches, “the Body of Christ” one group felt left out and it was Catholics. There may have been some Cruz event at some Catholic-type location somewhere in the race, but I never saw it.

Many Catholics suspect evangelicals of being anti-Catholic. Christian candidates need to be aware of this concern and balance it. Cruz’s failure to do so not only hurt him with Catholics (who gravitated to the Queens-born Trump) but also redneck voters, many of whom saw him as pious at best and perhaps hypocritical at worst.


The Cruz campaign, like many today, razzle-dazzle donors with high-tech talk about “microtargeting” — another word for incredibly expensive ways of reaching voters about issues that may or may not affect their vote.

The flaw in this theory is the power earned media has in changing public opinion, as Trump has taught us. And a good media hit can blow out the best organization.

Also, a weak campaign message can blow out a great ground organization even in a caucus state — look at Nevada where the “phenomenal ground game” was good for only third place in a fairly libertarian election where turnout was less than half of Iowa.


We all loved how Cruz told off McConnell and wouldn’t back down, and how Boehner, Dole and other Establishment stooges were vicious in their attacks on Ted.

But let’s be honest folks, there was something wrong here. Even when it was just down to Trump and Cruz, Ted still couldn’t close the sale with many of his colleagues. That made many, even me, question his ability to be effective as president. And that’s a point Trump exploited.

You can be against the Establishment, but when you are perceived as being against everyone it becomes a problem.


The best thing for Trump were the crazy left-wing protesters, particularly the ones in Chicago who delivered the Illinois (and probably also Missouri) primaries to him.

For all his edginess, Cruz never pissed off the left the way Trump did. And the more Trump pissed off the left, the more conservatives grew to like him, and the Chicago “riots” were a pivotal moment.

Conservatives in their heads want a candidate like Ted Cruz who stands up for the Constitution and what we believe. But in our hearts we are attracted to a candidate opposed by the most vile left-wing elements in society. And you know why? Because we’re all sick of being their punching bags.

Trump told conservatives we’re not going to be punching bags any longer, and the way he dealt with Cruz was to make him his punching bag. So Cruz got in the league with the rest of them.


After the Wisconsin win, Cruz had critical momentum on his side and with conventions in Colorado and Wyoming helping, there was a real possibility to use those two weeks between Wisconsin and New York to show up Trump on his own turf, steal some delegates and tie things up even more. Cruz should have campaigned for those 39 New York City delegates like he was running for Mayor, and spent as much time there as any place.

Because even though Cruz wasn’t going to win in New York, every district Trump got under 50% was another delegate further he was from 1237. Instead he ran a minimal media campaign that consisted only of negative ads against Trump — ads that kept his own voters home and did nothing to blunt Trump’s vote.

The result was a massacre in New York, which led to another massacre a week later, which led to Indiana.


While the lack of hard-hitting negative ads helped demoralize the Cruz Crew in the final weeks, the failure to run positive and comparative ads that made the case for Cruz versus Trump was a fatal move.

Ted Cruz is a uniquely articulate and intelligent voice for the values of freedom and liberty we as conservatives believe in. But that voice was overlooked as the campaign message became more about procedure and sparring with Trump over personality issues than debating issues.


One of the worst things to happen to Cruz was the #NeverTrump movement. It lumped Cruz in with the hated GOP Establishment in a year when their negatives were worse than ever. The more that people like Romney attacked Trump, the stronger he got. The so-called “deal” with Kasich made things even worse and the Fiorina pick made him look desperate.

The problem with this strategy is by the time the #NeverTrump movement started, Trump was perceived by many (in spite of reality) as both more conservative than Cruz and more anti-Establishment. The movement turned Cruz into everything he was against. It turned him into Mitt Romney without the Establishment.


While Cruz’s team had all kinds of microtargeting demographics and carefully placed social media ads, Trump had a series of fake “news” websites print total propaganda ranging from completely false stories to true stories with juicy clickbait headlines.

While Cruz had hundreds of datapoints on all their supporters, Trump had an army of creative writers pumping out fresh copy for supporters to share and retweet all over the planet. And I’ll bet Trump spent a lot less on his social media than Cruz did.

One day while looking for Cruz news I typed in “Ted Cruz” into Google and the TOP STORY was from a fake Trump news site noting that “A Ted Cruz Sex Scandal Is About To EXPLODE.” This was not only brilliant, but something Cruz should have been doing.

The worst part of the Cruz social media was there wasn’t the sense of “community” on the main Cruz page that could be found in unofficial Cruz groups. A group run by a small pro-Cruz SuperPAC regularly got more activity than all the other pro-Cruz SuperPACs combined.

This extended to both news briefings and the endless fundraising emails that were both intellectually insulting and void of any substantive content. It was particularly out of place for a campaign that prides itself on intellectual superiority and solid ideological substance.


Ted Cruz was giving virtually the exact same stump speech in April that he was giving in October. Say what you want about Trump but his speeches are never the same. And not only do voters like the authenticity, but they see the scripted speech as fake and phony.

You cannot possibly run with the same message in the Spring when you are in a one-on-one bloodbath as you did in the Fall when there were seventeen candidates. But Ted did, and the rigidity didn’t help.


Cruz finished himself off in Indiana by panicking and first announcing his “deal” with Kasich (and inexplicably the day before the five April 26th states voted). In what was universally seen as a panic move, he then picked Fiorina as his VP, bringing back memories of Reagan and Richard Schweiker.

The press coverage shifted to how Cruz was making his last stand and, as things got worse, the candidate panicked more and more and started to lose it, first looking silly arguing with a cult member and then getting defensive over Trump’s attacking his dad.


Cruz’s campaign team was fatigued and needed some new energy in the way that a great starter needs a reliever. The Trump people brought in Manafort to help out Lewandowski. The Cruz campaign needed some new blood from the outside for the final stretch, especially when things started going badly in mid-April.


Trump utilized Alinsky tactics against each and every one of his opponents. IT WORKED. He taught us that the only rules in politics are that there are no rules (other than the Penal Code). And he kicked our asses with it.


Trump won. I don’t like it but it’s reality. And we’re all going to have to suck it up or deal with another four years of even more kooky Obamunism than we’ve had over the last eight. That’s just the way it is.

It might also be exactly the same with Trump. But I know this. His supporters are the people we used to call “Reagan Democrats.” His top political advisors are just about all people on the right even if he isn’t. And even though his supporters’ tactics made a lot of us block and unfriend them, they are people who have been on our side in the fights against the GOPe scum who sold our nation out to Obama and his allies.

The convention in Cleveland will have a mix of Trump people and Cruz people…and a few Establishment types who will be hopelessly outnumbered. Let’s hope that the Trump and Cruz people can unite in Cleveland and together take our party back from the lowlife “moderates” whose failures and weaknesses gave us Pelosi and Reid in 2006 and two terms of Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Does this mean I’m supporting Trump? Does it make a difference who I’m voting for now? It’s over. We lost. He won. That’s reality.

But it’s not up to us to kiss Trump’s ass and ask to join his team. He wants to win. He needs our votes. And it’s up to Trump to go out and make the case to the millions of Cruz supporters that they need to be on his team and not stay home. My guess is that he will. We’ll see.

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