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Can Ted Cruz Survive Super Tuesday?

Mathematically, the firebrand senator may be done. But that doesn't mean his campaign will end.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Ted Cruz’s imperiled, vaguely messianic campaign for president was bound to cause some to Remember the Alamo this week, even before Cruz started making rather ominous references to patriotic martyrdom on his own“I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible and die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor and that of his country,” the senator from Texas declared to an audience of Houston factory workers last Wednesday, reciting a letter written by Alamo commander William B. Travis before his final stand. “Like the Alamo in 1836, America is besieged,” Cruz said. “Victory or death.”

Defeat on Super Tuesday probably won’t cost Cruz his life—though Senator Lindsey Graham, for one, wouldn’t shed too many tears if it did. But a poor showing in Texas and the six other Southern states would almost surely spell doom for whatever plausible chance he has of becoming the GOP nominee.

Since winning the Iowa caucuses at the beginning of February, Cruz has finished third in each of the last three contests—including South Carolina, where he devoted significant time and resources early on to build out a ground game. More worrisome than the sizable delegate gap separating him from Donald Trump—whose border wall would no doubt have prevented those marauding Mexicans from ever reaching the Alamo in the first place—is Cruz’s waning support among evangelical voters. In last Tuesday’s Nevada Caucus, Cruz trailed not only twice-divorced, Biblically illiterate Trump among that key demographic, but also the proteanly Christian Marco Rubio.

As the New Republic’s Elizabeth Bruenig has written, “Inspiring vast, energetic evangelical support was a key strategy for the Cruz campaign” from the beginning. His candidacy was predicated on the notion that, rather than run to the right during the primaries and attempt an ungainly pivot back to the middle for the general, a sufficiently pure conservative candidate could instead draw millions of disengaged voters—mostly evangelicals—to the polls. Ted Cruz, nemesis of the Washington Cartel, torch-bearing scion of a fiery preacher father, would lead an army of these “courageous conservatives” right up to the gates of the White House.

Cruz has been laying the groundwork for this sort of outsider campaign ever since he barged onto the Senate floor in 2013, and Super Tuesday was supposed to be the moment when all the seeds he’s planted in that brief-but-eventful legislative career would blossom. With the addition of Texas, Arkansas, and Alabama to an already Southern-heavy national sampling, this cycle’s “SEC primary” was engineered to give evangelicals and Tea Partiers outsized influence over the nominating process. Cruz, not without good reason, assumed he would be the one to benefit.

But what once looked to be a launchpad for the Cruz campaign could now come to signal its ultimate futility. According to the (very limited) aggregated polling data, Cruz leads in just two of the Southern states—Texas and neighboring Arkansas—with Trump ahead, often commandingly so, in the other five (Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Virginia). 

Rubio, the darling of both the GOP elite and the media, is finally starting to find some traction, at Cruz’s expense, among Republican voters. But the results of a recent Bloomberg survey suggest that Cruz would still lose most of the SEC states to Trump even if Rubio wasn’t a factor. It may be that Trump has made himself the more credible outsider. Or perhaps Southern voters simply care less about Cruz’s high-minded conservatism than the racial anxieties that animate it—anxieties that Trump has tapped into far more directly. Whatever the reason, the meteoric rise of Trumpism appears to have relegated Cruz’s anti-establishment crusade to an afterthought in precisely the region where it was supposed to generate the most enthusiasm.  

“If he can’t do it in the South, where does he come out and perform better?” asks Charles Bullock III, a professor of Southern politics at the University of Georgia and author of The New Politics of the Old South. “Is there a place for him to stage a second act?” Bullock asks rhetorically. “Unless he sweeps the South, there are going to be serious questions” about the rationale for his candidacy going forward.

Nowhere will the expectations be ratcheted higher than Cruz’s home state of Texas. The numbers coming out of Texas vary, but most pollsters grant Cruz a healthy but far-from-bulletproof cushionRoss Ramsey, executive editor of the Texas Tribune, sums up the stakes for Cruz: “A significant win would be a period. A small win would be a question mark. A loss in Texas would be awful.” With 155 delegates—more than in the first four contests combined—his home state is Cruz’s best, and possibly last, opportunity to assert mathematical relevance in the race.

Cruz’s communications director, Alice Stewart, insists that the candidate will confound the pollsters throughout the region on Tuesday, noting that Cruz “was down in Iowa, and he still won”—thanks largely to his ground game and intensive campaigning in the state. But in Texas and the other Super Tuesday states, relying on a grassroots network to come through when it counts, as it did for Cruz in Iowa, is precarious at best.

Texas, as Ramsey notes, “is not a retail state. It’s wholesale. You’re not going to win here by showing up at every diner.” Trump had barely stepped foot in the state prior to last week’s rally in Fort Worth, which drew some 10,000 people, and his sparse field operation lost its director less than two months ago. But Trump’s face has been as orange and ubiquitous on Texas news programming as on every other TV across the nation. And while Cruz has received endorsements from such prominent figures as former Governor Rick Perry and current Governor Greg Abbott, and has secured the support of a vast statewide political apparatus, the outlook on the ground is murky. “There’s been a lot of noise down here,” Ramsey says. “A lot of party regulars are with Rubio.” Ramsey even wonders whether the ghosts of Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, Texas natives both, could siphon off some uninformed voters, since both remain on the ballot. 

Like the other SEC states, Texas awards its delegates proportionally, making it that much more difficult for Cruz to pull off the major delegate coup he needs to gain momentum. The more likely outcome is a mixed one, in Texas and throughout the South, with a couple of nominal victories and a spattering of second-place finishes. Under that scenario, Cruz would walk away from Super Tuesday with a decent haul of delegates and still be, if anything, further from winning the nomination than he is presently.  

Aside from the slippage in his evangelical support, Cruz’s biggest problem is that he’s so thoroughly despised by the Republican establishment that even a surprisingly good night for him—or an exceptionally bad night for Rubio and John Kasich—might do little to narrow the field. The GOP elite, to say nothing of the national media, has too much invested in Rubio as the Trump alternative to abandon him at this point. 

In the aftermath of Super Tuesday, a lot of attention will be paid to how close Cruz can keep it in the Southern states he doesn’t carry, and how well he performs relative to Rubio. But Cruz, who has out-fundraised every remaining candidate thus far, including in SEC country, will have little incentive to duck out, regardless of whether he stands a serious chance of winning the nomination. He may be beset on all sides by enemies, but unlike the frontiersman at the Alamo, victory and death are not his only two options.