Does Cruz Have a Prayer in New Hampshire? Notes From the Campaign Trail

Ted Cruz, fresh off of his Iowa victory, has been campaigning heavily in New Hampshire the past week, trying to make it two-for-two as voting gets underway for the Republican presidential nomination. Although he has been slowly climbing in New Hampshire polls since mid-summer, when he was down at about 4%, Cruz has not seemed to get much of polling boost here since his Iowa victory, and in the last several days some polls show both Rubio and Kasich edging ahead of him into second place, with Bush nipping at his heels.

As I noted in my last post, there’s reason to suspect that Cruz’ brand of social conservatism might not play well in New Hampshire, which by some measures has the least religious voters in the country. For that reason I was eager to see whether Cruz might modulate his religiosity a bit while on the stump here. To find out, your intrepid blogger finally got to a Cruz event today, at the Tuckaway Tavern in Raymond, NH. Here’s my report:

I hit snow just before arriving at the campaign site, and had to detour around an accident in order to arrive in time. Cruz’ bus, with the “Cruzin’ To Victory” logo on the side, was already in the parking lot when I arrived.

Inside the crowd, which I estimated at about 150 people, snaked from the event room into the bar area. While waiting for Ted we said the Pledge of Allegiance and then listened to the warmup act extolling Ted’s Reaganesque virtues. As it turned out, I wasn’t able to get into the main room and so had to watch events from outside. Fortunately, I was right by the entrance so that when Ted arrived, he walked right by me as I fumbled with my phone trying to take a picture while getting crushed by the media. The result was one in a long line of blurry photos.

The first thing you notice about Ted is that he is short. The second is that he speaks much like a preacher, making brief points in a clear, commanding voice, and then pausing to let them sink in. It’s a different style than Trump’s “If I think it I say it” filter-free seat-of-the-pants discourse or Rubio’s fully formed declarative paragraphs. Because I was traveling alone and live tweeting the event, I don’t have detailed notes on what he said during this appearance, so I’ll just provide a brief overview here. He began by noting that the professional pundits and media people had continually counted him out, just as they had Ronald Reagan. But Reagan proved his doubters wrong, and Cruz had done the same in Iowa. He now wanted to prove them wrong again in New Hampshire. “We are seeing the Reagan coalition coming back” he proclaimed, after listing the muliple groups that are supporting his candidacy.

He argued that the nation is at a crisis point (something almost every Republican candidate says on the stump), and that the key to turning it around is economic growth. To promote growth he promised to repeal Obamacare and to institute a flat tax plan that was so simple people could fill out their taxes on the back of a postcard. This had the added value of allowing the government to eliminate the IRS. He promised a return to constitutional values, citing the need to protect the 2nd amendment, but also the 10th (“or as Obama calls it, ‘the what?’”). At this point Cruz was interrupted by a protester who appeared to want to excommunicate the demon that was possessing Cruz. After the protester was removed, Cruz joked, “Lefties don’t usually believe in God.”

Despite being in New Hampshire, religious themes figured prominently in Cruz’ speech. At one point he referenced Ronald Reagan’s quoting Second Corinthians (or as Trump prefers, “Two Corinthians”) during his inauguration, and then proceeded to quote the passage verbatim in what might have been a veiled swipe at Trump. If so, one had to wonder whether the anecdote played better in Iowa than here in New Hampshire.

When he was done Cruz took four questions (which I couldn’t hear from my vantage point). He noted that there are three keys to righting the “ship of state”. The first is to use executive action to repeal the executive actions taken by Obama, which he would do on “day one.” The second is to take advantage of the President’s greater authority in foreign affairs to correct mistakes made in that realm. So, he would move to repeal the Iran nuclear treaty, and would push to have Israel’s capitol relocated to Jerusalem. (Neither can be done by presidenital fiat, but never mind.) Finally, he cited the need to work with Congress on legislation. The only way to do that, he argued, is pressure legislators by developing a grass-roots mandate for Cruz’s legislative priorities. (Never mind that political science research dating back to Neustadt’s Presidential Power suggests the folly of presidential efforts to “go public” as a way of moving a legislative agenda.)  For Cruz, the key is to make congressional noncompliance an electoral liability for individual legislators.

As he brought the event to a close, Cruz asked audience members to remember to vote “10 times tomorrow.” “No, I’m not a Democrat” advocating voter fraud, he joked. Instead he wanted them to call friends, family, their mother (“You should do this anyway”) – at least nine other people and ask them to vote for Cruz. If everyone did this, he predicted victory tomorrow. He then concluded by asking the audience to pray for the United States.

After the Q&A ended, Cruz stayed for another 20 minutes taking selfies with the 30-40 people who lined up for pictures. During this period I took countless shots of the back of Ted’s head, my view blocked by a security guard.

At one point a bearded man wearing a knit cap and carrying a large American flag and a paper back tried to get into the room with Ted, but was stopped by a local cop. “What do you have in the bag,” the cop asked the man. “Ice cream,” he replied. “Do you want some?”  There were also representatives of the conservative media watch dog group there warning me not to trust the “liberal media.”  This was the first time I had seen them at any event.  When I asked the protestor if there was anything specific I shouldn’t trust, he replied, “The liberal media.”  I did manage to get a campaign button from them – the only Cruz swag I gathered, which was a disappointment.

As Cruz scurried by me to leave the premises, I could hear him asking his campaign aide “Where do we go next?” and thought this whole experience must be surreal for him. Unlike Kasich, who seems to be thoroughly enjoying the whole experience, I thought Cruz looked a little bit tentative or defensive as he walked by – as if he feared the worst come tomorrow.  I think he senses that this is not his home territory, but he’s trying to make the best of it.

The crowd skewed older, and seemed to be a mix of strong Cruz supporters and those who were just curious to learn more about him. But there were critics there as well – a woman next to me kept muttering her objections at every statement he made. Still, she stayed for the whole event. On the way out I asked another man what he thought. He replied, “I’m going to vote for him…..It’s time we had a man of God in the office for a change.” Perhaps – but I’m not convinced that view is widely shared among New Hampshire voters. As I noted in my last post summarizing the state of the Republican race here,  I predicted that both Cruz’ and Rubio’s support would slip after the afterglow of their Iowa showings began to recede, and that Kasich and Bush would pick up some of that support.

In less than 24 hours we’ll know if I’m right.

P.S.  I’ll try to get a short post up tomorrow assessing the Democratic race here, but it’s a busy day.

The State of the Republican Race: A View From the Ground In New Hampshire

Because I’ll be making a last round of New Hampshire campaign events tomorrow (I’m hoping to hit Cruz and Jeb! and will be live tweeting both events), I thought I’d post my assessment of the state of the Republican race in New Hampshire tonight. (The Democratic race, to me, has not been nearly as unpredictable.) As regular readers know, I’ve been fortunate to attend (and blog about) events held by every one of the Republican candidates so far (Lindsey – we hardly knew ye!) except for Cruz and Carson. (That includes Graham and Pataki – and I was witness to a “Where’s Jim Gilmore?” no show!)  Drawing on those experiences, here are my thoughts on the likely state of the race today.

As I predicted last night, there has been what I believe to be a media overreaction to Rubio’s admittedly subpar debate performance last night. While I understand the chattering class’ need to create a newsworthy moment from every debate, my sense is that Rubio’s shell-shocked initial response to Christie’s heavy-handed attack (I thought Rubio recovered and finished the debate on the upswing) won’t have nearly the impact on his support in New Hampshire as some seem to believe. This is because I thought he had already plateaued before last night’s debate took place. Although his events are well attended, Marco’s brand of social conservatism doesn’t play very well among many New Hampshire voters. The most recent Monmouth poll  finds that 55% of likely Republican voters surveyed say a candidate who shares their values is more important than electability when deciding how to vote. Unfortunately for Rubio, he has greater support among likely voters focused on electability (22%) rather than shared values (9%). Remember, Mike Huckabee received only 11% support in New Hampshire in 2008, and Rick Santorum did even worse, at 9% in 2012. Both were social conservatives coming off victories in Iowa. So while I expected that Rubio might get a momentary bump due to the media overreaction to his middling performance in Iowa, I didn’t think there would be any sustained Rubio surge in NH. This won’t stop pundits from claiming that Rubio’s debate performance caused his poll numbers to stall. Don’t get me wrong – Rubio attracts enthusiastic crowds, and he presents his socially conservative views in an easy-to-digest personal narrative sprinkled with plenty of feel-good human interest anecdotes, rather than through a fire-and-brimstone pulpit-pounding sermon. As I’ve noted before, he is the only candidate who can paint a picture of a nation going down the tubes, and yet audience members walk away feeling uplifted. But while he exudes a rock star quality that makes people wait in line to take selfies with him, I’m not completely convinced those pictures will translate into votes.

For similar reasons, I thought Ted Cruz never had much upside in this state either, Iowa victory notwithstanding, although I hesitate to say too much about his candidacy without first attending one of his rallies. Cruz has made only 26 visits to New Hampshire, has held less than half (84) the campaign events hosted by John Kasich (185) and Chris Christie (184) and, based on his debate performance last night, seems already to be looking beyond New Hampshire to contests down the road. Ben Carson, meanwhile, has been virtually absent here, with only 12 campaign visits and clearly seems to have staked his candidacy on doing well in South Carolina. On the other hand, Carly Fiorina, with close to 150 campaign events here so far, was clearly counting on a strong showing in New Hampshire. Despite drawing good crowds at her events, however, she has sagged of late in the polls and ABC (Anybody But Carly) essentially winnowed her from the race by excluding her from the debate stage last night. I expect her to drop out after Tuesday.

So who do I expect to do well in New Hampshire? Trump has led the polls for some time and he attracts the largest, most boisterous crowds I’ve seen here, rivaled only by Bernie’s. But it is hard to tell how well his big rally, fly-in/fly out southern New Hampshire campaign strategy will translate into votes. In what might be seen as a sign that his get-out-the-vote organization is not the best, he was the only candidate whose staff didn’t bother taking my name when I entered his rally. And he hasn’t engaged in the type of retail politics I’ve seen from Fiorina, Rubio and the governors Jeb!, Kasich and Christie. New Hampshire voters like to meet their candidates, preferably more than once. However, I’ve been wrong so often about Trump that I hesitate to say much more than that you should read my post about my visit to his rally.

I feel more confident touting the candidacies of Kasich and Jeb!, and I expect both to show late movement in the polls and to surprise a bit on Tuesday. As I noted in my post on my visit to one of his campaign events, Jeb! has really upped his game on the campaign trail, and he’s brought in the heavy artillery (his Mom) as well as some lesser guns (Lindsay Graham and former New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg) for the final push. He is likely to attract stronger support among older, moderate-leaning establishment Republicans who tend to turn out and vote. Of all the candidates, he is probably best able to survive finishing as low as 5th in New Hampshire, as long as it is a close 5th. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see him do better than 5th – polls indicate his support has solidified over the last few days, with 61% of his supporters now saying that they are definitely voting for him, up from 49% two days ago.

Kasich has basically camped out in New Hampshire for several months – his was one of the first campaign events I attended during this election cycle, and that was back in early September! In that time only Christie has made more visits to New Hampshire, and Kasich matches the New Jersey governor in total number of campaign events. Next to Trump, Kasich leads all Republican candidates among unaffiliated voters, and he does almost twice as well among the unaffiliated as he does among registered Republicans. (For Bush, the numbers are reversed – he does better among registered Republicans). Kasich is a true-blue conservative, but he has sought to soften that image with an optimistic, folksy demeanor in a transparent bid to win some crossover votes on Tuesday among the large chunk of unaffiliated New Hampshire voters. The more of them who decide to vote in the Republican race, the better he will likely do, but he is competing with Trump (and with Sanders!) for this vote.  Kasich is not quite a Jon Huntsman moderate, or a Ron Paul libertarian, so I’m not entirely persuaded he is going to attract the numbers he’ll need to to in order to get the media to begin giving him Rubio-like/he exceeded expectations coverage after Tuesday, but I do think he’ll finish in the top four.

And then there’s Christie. As his polls numbers began to sink, his rhetoric has become more apocalyptic, particularly on national security issues and – as his debate performance indicated – he has not been afraid to go on the offensive against his rivals. When I saw him back in November he spent a good deal of his talk discussing the opiate crisis in New Hampshire and came across as socially moderate. Since then, he has seemed to focus more on national security issues – or at least that’s been the emphasis in his campaign ads here. Like Kasich, he can’t afford to finish back in the pack on Tuesday because the road after New Hampshire only gets harder for his brand of politics. If forced to choose, my guess is that he is the most likely of the three governors to get winnowed after New Hampshire. If so, I expect most of his support to gravitate to Bush or Kasich. (This assumes Carly’s days are numbered as well.)

It’s been an interesting few months on the New Hampshire campaign trail – and it’s not over yet. A lot can happen in the next two days – according to one poll, less than 60% of those surveyed indicate their vote is completely locked in. I expect some reshuffling in the next 48 hours among the group of five candidates just below Trump, with Kasich and possibly Bush most likely to move up, and Cruz and Rubio to drop from their current polling averages. And if New Hampshire voters don’t have enough on their minds, they also have to grapple with a new voter ID law that may lead to longer lines at the polls. (Those showing up without a photo ID will have to fill out a voter affidavit and then get their picture taken.)

I’m back on the road tomorrow and then back to television thereafter. If I get a chance, I’ll chime in with my take on the Democratic side of the race before Tuesday. Stay tuned!