Ted Cruz would have been better off losing in Iowa than winning with the specter of “dirty tricks” hanging over him.
He’s at risk of becoming the New England Patriots of the Republican nomination process: a strong team with both a real chance of winning and a large anti-fan base rooting for them to lose.
Republican presidential candidates on stage during the CNN presidential debate at The Venetian Las Vegas, Dec. 15, 2015. (Getty Images/Ethan Miller)
Cruz insists his campaign did nothing wrong in the Iowa Caucus, but the perception is out there, and it’s not for nothing: you can’t spread word that a candidate is dropping out of the race – as Cruz’s ground game apparently did – at caucus sites on the day of the vote unless you have solid confirmation that it’s true. And such verification is trivially easy to find on a candidate’s campaign site, Facebook page or Twitter feed. Ben Carson gave no such word.
The issue is going to be up front and center going into the first primary in New Hampshire, and maybe longer. Here’s how it will play out.
1. Conservatives Now Trust the Mainstream Media (Or Not)
For the last, oh, thousand years, conservatives have distrusted the “mainstream media,” decrying their liberal-leaning analysis, and even questioning the truth of their (allegedly) straightforward reporting.
But then, the day of the Iowa Caucus, CNN reported that Ben Carson was heading to Florida after the caucus, and CNN speculated that Carson might be dropping out. Cruz’s staff shared the report with their ground team, which morphed into the “news” that Carson was, in fact, dropping out (something neither Carson nor CNN ever said).
Funnily enough, conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Mark Levin – who have yet to endorse any candidate (NEWS FLASH: you’re supporting Ted Cruz, guys) – haven’t offered a bit of criticism to Cruz’s campaign for believing CNN’s reporting and follow-up analysis-slash-speculation. Cruz was right to act on what CNN said, because conservatives apparently now take mainstream media news reporting (avec speculation) at face value.
And so it shall be for the rest of time…
Or for maybe another 10 seconds, until the media says something conservatives disagree with, at which point conservatives will be hard-pressed to explain their newly-resurrected skepticism (which will in turn be viewed with, well, skepticism).
Oh, well. There’ll always be that magical 72-hour period back in Iowa when conservative media and mainstream media fell in love and became as one.
2. The Kingmaker Chooses Among Fewer Kings…
As I’ve said before, I don’t think the “dirty tricks” incident changed the overall standings of the Iowa Caucus. Maybe Carson lost a few votes and Cruz picked some of them up, but the "Cruz in first, followed by Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, and then Carson" outcome likely would have been the same otherwise.
So, “no harm, no foul,” right? Wrong. Just because you would have won without cheating doesn’t mean you didn’t, in fact, cheat. Cruz needs to dispel the idea that he cheated at all, not the idea that cheating gave him a win. And it’s probably too late to do that (see below).
The primaries are here. While Carson has little chance of winning the nomination, he’s in a position to propel Cruz, Trump, or Rubio to the top by endorsing one of them when he really does drop out.
The longer there’s a perception that Cruz spread rumors at the expense of Carson, the less likely it is Carson will crown Cruz.
3. “Caucus Crook” is the New “Low Energy”
Maybe the worst part of this for Cruz is the Trump factor. Trump has loudly (well, duh; does Trump do anything quietly?) taken up the cause of declaring Cruz to be a cheater. He’s been more vocal about it than Carson himself (well, duh; does Carson do anything noisily?). Trump is even calling for a do-over, which of course will never happen.
But Trump is a master of branding himself and others. Jeb Bush has never managed to live down Trump declaring him to be Mr. “Low Energy.” (Seriously, the phrase will wind up in the poor guy’s obituary, if not on his tombstone.) Trump will try to do the same to Cruz, probably with a jab during the New Hampshire debate on Saturday. Cruz’s new parody slogan will be, “Vote for Ted Cruz: Because CNN says all the other candidates dropped out.”
Now, Cruz had a chance to stop this. If, the day after the Iowa Caucus, Cruz had rounded up his team, found out who had allowed his ground game to spread the rumor that Carson was dropping out, looked them in the eye and said, “you’re fired,” he would have been in control of the story. He would have been seen as standing for integrity, even at the cost of punishing his own staff. And he would have done it while stealing Trump’s catch phrase.
But he didn’t, and now it’s too late. Trump has taken the mic, and we all know how hard it is to control a rampaging Trumpasaurus Rex.
For those Cruz supporters lamenting that the insulting, duplicitous, and hypocritical Trumpster is venting on a beloved conservative, maybe you should have said something months ago, back when Trump was unloading similarly on women and Mexicans. You could have nipped this in the bud…
4. Unlikable Just Became Less Likable
Fairly or unfairly (and some of it is unfair), Ted Cruz has a likability problem. Being seen as a cheater – especially against Carson, who (fairly or unfairly) is viewed as benign – will only make this problem worse. As Yoda would say, “Worse this will get.”
It’s simply false for Cruz to defend his campaign staff by saying they were just “passing along public news reports.” Nothing CNN said amounted to an announcement that Carson was – to use the magic words – “suspending his campaign.” But that’s what Cruz’s campaign was saying. This explanation comes off as Bill-and-Hillary Clinton-esque at a time when the GOP is in search of the anti-Clinton.
Cruz might try to spread the blame, noting that Rubio’s campaign was also at fault, and it looks like there’s basis for that. But pointing out that the other kid broke a window isn’t the same as owning up that you did the same thing, too. It will come off as even more unaccountable, and even less honorable.
The fact is, Cruz’s campaign spread a falsehood that they could easily have sussed out if they’d simply read CNN’s tweets or Ben Carson’s social media. Defending his staff when they’ve screwed up is not loyalty in the admirable sense, it’s the shady loyalty of Richard Nixon. Or maybe Hillary Clinton.
And, as surely Clinton’s campaign message is going to be swamped by her ridiculous do-it-yourself national security email server, Cruz’s message will be swamped by his failure to rein in his own irresponsible campaign staff. Ask yourself, since his Iowa win, how much have you heard about Cruz’s political platform versus his “dirty tricks”?
For this, Cruz can’t blame Rubio or CNN. Only himself.
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