Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton get all the headlines. Marco Rubio and Bernie Sanders get all the buzz. But Ted Cruz is running the best campaign of the any of the 19 people seeking the presidency.
This fact might shock you. The senator from Texas is, after all, one of the least-liked members of Congress. He's hated by Democrats as a rank ideologue interested only in furthering his own political ambitions. And, he's hated by Republicans as a rank ideologue interested only in furthering his own political ambitions. Cruz has become, for both parties' establishments, the living, breathing symbol of everything that's wrong with Washington.
That image, of course, works to Cruz's great advantage with a Republican presidential primary electorate that loathes the nation's capital and everyone who makes their living there. (You might note, gentle reader, that Cruz would be included among those who make their living in D.C. No one ever accused voters of being entirely consistent.)
Cruz has done a lot right in this race. Consider:
1. He was the first candidate into the race -- he announced on March 23 -- and, by going first, won weeks worth of positive publicity when no one else was in the mix.
2. He announced at Liberty University, making clear to every Republican voter that he wouldn't shy away from identifying as a proud social conservative.
3. His message is pitch-perfect. No one, not even Trump, in the GOP field can deliver the Washington-is-broken-and-they-don't even-get-it message better than Cruz. Trump's problem is that he veers WAY off message every few minutes. Cruz is much more disciplined, finding ways to bring virtually any question he is asked back to how terrible the "Washington Cartel" is. Cruz has one other thing that Trump lacks: A track record of sticking it to the party establishment.
4. He avoided attacking Trump during the height of the real estate magnate's popularity over the summer, ensuring that if/when Trump fades (and there is some evidence that's happening) he could hoover up those supporters. Trump has said only nice things about him on and offline; "Well, it is a little bit of a romance," Trump told the BBC recently of his relationship with Cruz. "I like him. He likes me."
5. He's been a fundraising dynamo. Cruz has raised the second-most money -- candidate committee + super PACS -- of any candidate other than Jeb Bush.
And, unlike most of his rivals for the Republican nomination, Cruz is keeping his campaign's spending very much under control. His burn rate (money raised compared to money spent) is at 47 percent, lower than every top-tier contender other than Rubio (40 percent).
It's hard to overstate how important Cruz's fundraising is to his chances. Cruz is positioned ideologically like lots of social conservative outsider candidates -- Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum -- of the recent past. But, unlike those people, Cruz has tens of millions of dollars sitting in a super PAC ready to be spent on him when he starts moving (or to be spent to get him moving). Cruz's money should also allow him to stay in the race when the field begins to winnow in earnest. And remember (per Point No. 3 above) that he is the single best articulator of the current mood of the GOP base.
6. He's in perfect striking position in Iowa. Yes, Ben Carson is the favorite today in Iowa. But Carson is also a first-time candidate who is likely to make mistakes and, if the 2012 election is any guide, watch his numbers yo-yo around in Iowa (and elsewhere) quite a bit. Cruz, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polling in the state, is lurking in fourth behind only Carson, Donald Trump and Rubio. And, of that quartet, Cruz has the best profile -- deeply socially conservative, Southern -- to win the state, assuming past is prologue.
7. He's done just enough in debates. It's very hard to distinguish yourself in an 11-person debate stage and very easy to disappear on one. Just ask Scott Walker. Cruz hasn't been the center of the action in either of the first two presidential debates and probably won't be at the CNBC debate in Colorado Wednesday night either. But, he's found a way to make sure his message of absolutist conservatism gets heard by taking advantage of the relatively small amount of speaking time he gets. And, as the field starts to shrink, Cruz's skills as a nationally recognized debate champ will shine through -- and get more positive attention.