Cruz victory comforts pundits, but sets the stage for an ongoing struggle

Conventional wisdom won the night on Monday when Ted Cruz proved that ground game, indeed, still matters.

Republican 2016 US presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Republican 2016 US presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz
(photo credit: REUTERS)
SAN FRANCISCO – What so baffled political pundits, pollsters and reporters in Washington entering the Iowa caucuses was the perceived irrelevance of conventional wisdom: The belief that Donald J. Trump might actually win despite years of evidence suggesting a ground game far more robust than his was necessary to do the job.
Conventional wisdom won the night on Monday when Sen. Ted Cruz – who identified captains to cover 1,681 precincts in the spring of 2015 – proved that ground game, indeed, still matters.
His victory over Trump, who has dominated the US news cycle for months on end, was a testament to old-fashioned, ground-stomping, door-by-door campaigning in the Hawkeye state.
And yet 45,427 people turned out on a blistering Iowa night to support real estate mogul-turned-populist icon Trump – the second largest voter total in Iowa caucus history. The result shows that Trump’s unconventional tactics are also effective. The question is whether they will be effective enough to launch him to decisive victories in the contests to come.
Trump’s big-media tactics will begin to deliver more support – and Cruz’s, less – as the primary calendar proceeds through March, when ground campaigns become impossible to manage in larger states voting in close proximity, and when big-money advertisement purchases become the name of the game.
Now that Trump has demonstrated an ability to turn media tricks and rally crowds into votes, the test of his candidacy going forward may be a matter of endurance.
And yet his candidacy is also predicated on the aura of the winner, and Trump– despite his impressive vote total – definitely was a loser this week. He lost to Cruz by four percentage points, and barely beat Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who also has an endurance test ahead of him as he prepares to corral the establishment of his party behind him.
Cruz’s win may best be considered in light of the last two Republican victories in Iowa, clinched by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in 2008 and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum in 2012.
Neither victory led to others, and similarly, Cruz faces a difficult path toward the nomination, with little support visible in New Hampshire or Nevada – two of the next three nominating contests.
He stands his best chance next in South Carolina, where – like in Iowa – he will compete for a sizable portion of the state’s fervent Christian population. But the senator remains deeply unpopular amongst longtime members of his own party – both in Washington and out – and maintains high favorability ratings, similar to Trump.
Should he fail to transform his Iowa victory into a more viable campaign nationwide, Cruz’s victory on Monday night may prove to be most significant not to Cruz, but to Trump, who now looks to New Hampshire for a clear win.
Absent such an outcome, the candidate may struggle to continue casting himself as the unwavering champion he asserts to be.