How Cruz's strategy to support Trump could propel him to the top

Photo by Gage Skidmore

When Texas voters exited the polls in 2014, half of them indicated they would not cast their vote for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, if he ran for president in 2016. But a new Texas Lyceum poll has him in second place with 16 percent of Texans' support — just five points behind frontrunner Donald Trump. Trump at the top? Cruz a close second? The new poll has pundits and professors (this one included) in a frenzy — could Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz possibly knock Trump out of the lead and pull off a win in Texas?

Cruz's turnaround from the rather dismal poll results two years ago is due to a simple but smart strategy. He has decided to follow that old Cold War aphorism, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Rather than attack Trump, Cruz has consistently supported him. In response to Trump's tirades on immigration, Cruz called Trump “terrific” and “brash,” a guy who “speaks the truth.” When Trump questioned whether Sen. John McCain was a Vietnam War hero, Cruz chose not to denounce the comments. And last month, Cruz invited Trump (and no other candidate) to join him in headlining a Washington, D.C., rally denouncing the Iran nuclear deal.

Aligning himself with Trump has paid off. Trump has conveniently spared Cruz from the powerful vitriol he regularly unleashes on other Republican candidates. And Cruz hasn't had to spend a cent of his own campaign money to attack his rivals — Trump is doing it for him. He has questioned Rick Perry's IQ, called Lindsey Graham an idiot, said Jeb Bush is boring, and disparaged both Carly Fiorina's CEO skills and appearance. The message Cruz has taken away from all of this is clear. Stand by The Donald. For now, it's working. But there are still four months until the Iowa caucus, and five months until the Texas primary. Can Cruz keep it up? Will Trump fall? What happens if/when the race becomes a Trump-Cruz showdown? The likelihood of which increased this week when in an interview where Cruz said “I think in time, the lion's share of his (Trump’s) supporters end up with us.”

For Cruz, the key to breaking out of Trump’s shadow is (as Rodney Dangerfield so famously put it in “Back To School") to “look out for number one and don't step in number two.” Cruz needs to perform well in the invisible primary metrics — fundraising, polling and debates.  He needs to build upon his solid third-quarter fundraising numbers, which doubled those of fellow Senator and rival Marco Rubio. He has to spend wisely, keep raising money and avoid wasting his war chest on misplaced attacks. If he's broke by the time Iowa rolls around, he's done for.

He also can't drop any further in the national polls, where he's running in the middle of the pack. An October CBSNews Poll placed Cruz in third place, but still 18 points behind Trump. He needs a breakout moment in future debates to propel his campaign — but he has to avoid a misstep or verbal slip, which can ruin even the most experienced candidate. With their relationship cooling, he must also be prepared to defend himself against Trump’s legendary verbal assaults.

If Trump falls first, Cruz must convince voters he's the logical choice. It's unlikely Trump supporters would turn to a party favorite like Bush or the socially conservative Mike Huckabee. A Trump implosion may scare voters from supporting another inexperienced candidate, such as Fiorina or Ben Carson. And the sometimes-successful tactic of governors playing the Washington outsider card isn't working so far, which likely rules out Chris Christie. In short, if Trump goes down, Ted Cruz is in the best position to tap into Republican voters looking for an outsider message combined with an elected messenger. 

If Trump doesn't falter, and if Star Wars has taught us anything, then a showdown between the master and the apprentice may be inevitable once the election begins. And that showdown will likely happen in the place that's electorally most important to Republicans — the Lone Star State.

Brian W. Smith

Associate Professor, School of the Behavioral and Social Sciences, St. Edward's University