The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump leads in the polls, but Ted Cruz looks more like the favorite

Sen. Ted Cruz. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

The Iowa caucuses are 54 days away. Donald Trump is, still, the national front-runner. Marco Rubio is, now, the establishment's best (only?) hope. And Ted Cruz is the guy who looks best positioned to win.

Yes, you heard that right.

Ted Cruz, as of today, has the most direct route to the Republican presidential nomination — assuming the past history of Republican nomination fights works as a broad predictor of where this race is headed.

Let me elaborate.

1. Cruz is positioned as the most conservative candidate in the race.  While Trump gets all of the attention for his over-the-top statements, Cruz has staked out a position on the far right on virtually every major hot-button issue — from immigration to Obamacare to national security and the fight with ISIS. And, tonally, Cruz comes across as aggressively and unapologetically conservative — a less controversial and unelectable version of Trump.

A Washington Post-ABC News November poll showed that Cruz's numbers are in the stratosphere with voters who identify themselves as "very" conservative; 69 percent had a favorable opinion of him while just 21 percent regarded Cruz in an unfavorable light.

In a Republican primary — particularly one in which the GOP electorate is mad as hell at everyone (including those in their own party) for an alleged lack of commitment to conservative principles — being the guy all the way on the ideological right is a very, very good thing.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) says he does not agree with fellow candidate Donald Trump's idea to ban Muslims from entering U.S. (Video: Reuters)

2. Cruz has raised the second most money in the race.  Yes, Jeb Bush is far and away the fundraising leader in the race. Not only did we know that would be the case but we also now know that it has done him, roughly, zero good. But what most people didn't expect and/or don't know is that Cruz has raised the second-most cash among Republicans running in 2016.

Cruz's $65 million raised is all the more impressive because, unlike Bush who raised the vast, vast majority of his money into his Right to Rise super PAC, Cruz has relatively even balance between candidate committee ($26.5 million) and super PACs ($38 million). Having so much money in his campaign account means that Cruz will get more bang for his buck, since candidates get the lowest unit rate on TV ad buying while super PACs have to pay full freight for their air time.

Cruz's money is also what separates him from other candidates who secured the "most conservative candidate in the primary" mantle. Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum both won the Iowa caucuses — more on Cruz and Iowa below — but were unable to capitalize on that win or sustain their support because they had so little money. Cruz is the best case scenario for those who want to see a movement conservative nominated — he's of the conservative movement but has the fundraising ability of an establishment Republican.

3. Cruz is the Iowa front-runner. Recent history makes clear that you need to win one of the first three states — Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina — to have a realistic chance at being the party's nominee. (Remember how well Rudy Giuliani's "wait until Florida" strategy worked in 2008? Thought so.)

Cruz is emerging rapidly as the favorite in Iowa's caucuses. A Monmouth University poll released this week showed Cruz taking the lead from Trump even as Ben Carson, a onetime Iowa front-runner, continued to collapse. As I wrote a few weeks back, Cruz's profile — socially conservative, southern — looks like the right fit for the increasingly evangelical Iowa electorate.

Winning Iowa would give Cruz momentum going into New Hampshire — where he currently sits third — and into South Carolina, a state, like Iowa, whose Republican primary electorate is quite socially conservative.

4. The calendar beyond the Big 3 favors Cruz. Winning one of the first three states is, almost certainly, the only way a candidate makes it to March. But, assuming Cruz is one of those candidates who makes it to March, the calendar starts to look very favorable to him. On March 1 is what's being referred to as the "SEC primary"; Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas will all vote on that first Tuesday in March.

It's very difficult to handicap how those states might play out because of how much, historically, the first three states have influenced who even stays in the race through March 1. Still, Cruz's profile as a the one true constitutional conservative in the race coupled with his Southern roots and his fundraising might make for an attractive package for voters going to the polls that day.

The next big primary day is two weeks later on March 15 when Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio vote. There are less obvious wins in those states for Cruz, but he would almost certainly run well in North Carolina and Missouri under any circumstance and might do well in the other three states depending on who else was left in the contest.

Yes, Cruz has weaknesses — most notably that he has shown little ability to appeal beyond his conservative base and that he is far less likable than, say, Rubio — if it comes down to a one-on-one fight between the two. Rubio is also trying to make an issue of Cruz's immigration stance — insisting that the Texas senator is less hard-line on the issue than he lets on. But, so do Trump (being Trump) and Rubio (what early state does he win?). And Cruz's strengths are considerable — particularly when you consider how these races typically play out.

Cruz has begun his ascent up the national polls at just about the right time. (The race will go into deep freeze from around next week through the beginning of 2016.) His campaign is perfectly positioned to make him the last man standing. Believe it.

Ted Cruz exits the presidential race

Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks with his wife, Heidi, by his side during a primary night campaign event, Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in Indianapolis. Cruz ended his presidential campaign, eliminating the biggest impediment to Donald Trump's march to the Republican nomination. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)