Donald Trump launched his TV advertising just after New Year’s with his familiar swagger: He was so far ahead in the polls that it might be a waste, he said, but he felt guilty for not spending his money.
The reality was more sobering.
After six months of branding opponents and critics as losers, Trump faces the threat of becoming one himself in Iowa, the first state to hold a Republican presidential nominating contest. The ads are a crucial part of Trump’s strategy to keep Ted Cruz from beating him in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1.
Cruz’s appeals to evangelicals, tea party followers and other conservatives have made the Texas senator the current favorite in Iowa, though the New York billionaire remains a solid front-runner in the rest of the country.
Cruz’s surge in Iowa is jeopardizing Trump’s quest to “run the table” by winning every GOP primary and caucus nationwide.
The two are taking sharply contrasting approaches to Iowa. Trump has darted in for occasional rallies before huge crowds, relying on TV news coverage to reach Iowans. He typically spends a few hours in the state, then returns to New York in his private jet. Trump’s rallies Saturday afternoon in Ottumwa and Clear Lake came after an 11-day absence from Iowa.
Cruz has devoted far more time and resources to the state, following the playbook of previous Iowa caucus winners Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. Like them, Cruz is a constant presence. He’s especially aggressive in appealing to culturally conservative Christians in small towns scattered across western Iowa. His father, pastor Rafael Cruz, is a popular surrogate.
In a six-day bus trek across Iowa that ended Saturday, the senator glad-handed voters at Kings Christian Bookstore in Boone, Penny’s Diner in Missouri Valley, Godfather’s Pizza in Spirit Lake and Praise Community Church in Mason City.
Frequent face-to-face contact with Iowans can build a loyal following — supporters who won’t hesitate to spend a dead-of-winter evening listening to neighbors make speeches for candidates before voting takes place.
Santorum defeated Mitt Romney there in 2012 by just 34 votes. It took more than two weeks to finish the count; the election-night tally had Romney ahead by eight votes.
“There’s very little doubt that the Cruz coalition in Iowa is built upon the traditional Iowa Republicans who caucus every four years like it’s their job,” said Matt Strawn, a former Iowa Republican chairman who is unaligned in the presidential contest. “Those are precisely the types that actually demand to see you, shake your hand, ask you a question, take a selfie.”
Cruz says he has 3,360 volunteers, many of them from Texas, working in Iowa. His campaign has set up 48 dorm-style rooms in Des Moines. “I’m told they’re having a keg party next week,” Cruz said at a recent campaign stop.
Cruz, one of the top fundraisers in the GOP race, can also match rivals with TV advertising and mail in Iowa without compromising his capacity to compete in other states.
Trump’s Iowa ground game is harder to gauge; his top campaign operatives there did not return phone calls. “No one is available to connect,” Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks said.
Iowans who attend Trump’s rallies, which can attract several thousand people, must register by email, enabling the campaign to try to prod them later to a caucus. But many Trump supporters have never participated in a caucus.
Craig Robinson, a former political director of the state Republican Party, said Trump’s campaign was doing a good job of collecting data on supporters, but faced an uphill fight in educating them on the caucus process and motivating them to vote.
“It’s a much easier lift for Cruz to turn his people out,” Robinson said. Cruz is focused on longtime caucus participants and “going to where the voters are.”
“Donald Trump goes to where he can land his airplane,” Robinson added. “There’s a difference.”
Joyce Wright, 64, a retired Maytag washing machine builder who lives in Bondurant, Iowa, applauded Trump at a rally in Des Moines last month. She is familiar with the caucus process, but was unsure whether she’d make it to her precinct gathering to vote for Trump. “A lot of it will depend on the weather,” she said.
In their public remarks, Trump and Cruz have been circling each other for weeks.
Trump has spared Cruz the scathing insults he has heaped on other opponents, but nonetheless has tested multiple lines of attack, starting at his Dec. 11 rally in Des Moines. He told the crowd that Cruz “gets a lot of oil money” from Texas donors and opposes ethanol biofuel subsidies that are highly popular in Iowa, where agriculture is a big industry.
Trump emphasized the point Saturday in Ottumwa, noting Cruz’s recent shift to support subsidies until 2022. “He was getting clobbered,” Trump told the crowd. “And all of a sudden he said, ‘Uh-oh, I’m for ethanol.’ You can’t do that.”
Trump has also questioned Cruz’s religious faith. “I do like Ted Cruz, but not a lot of evangelicals come out of Cuba,” he said at the rally in Des Moines. Cruz, whose father was a Cuban immigrant, is a Southern Baptist.
On CNN this week, Trump also tried to raise doubts about Cruz’s commitment to stop illegal immigration. “Ted was in favor of amnesty,” Trump said, a charge that Cruz denies.
On Twitter, Trump gamely offered Cruz “free legal advice” Thursday on preempting any Democratic attack on his American citizenship. Trump urged Cruz to seek a court order declaring that his birth to an American mother in Canada qualified him as a “natural born” citizen entitled to run for president. “You will win!” Trump wrote.
Cruz, already under attack by multiple opponents and the ethanol industry in Iowa, has carefully avoided any spats with Trump. Hee doesn’t want to alienate Trump supporters should they ultimately abandon the businessman.
“Politicians behave a certain way when they’re panicking, and they engage in … personal attacks,” Cruz told MSNBC. “That’s human nature. I understand that. I’m not going to get drawn into that muck.”
But he did draw a contrast on immigration recently. Asked at an Iowa campaign stop whether he agreed with Trump that every immigrant in the country illegally should be deported, Cruz said yes, but added, “Look, there’s a difference. He’s advocated allowing folks to come back in and become citizens. I oppose that.”