A new target and a somewhat-more-subtle version of the old, "Is this guy really a 'natural-born citizen?'" questions are involved. But Trump's apparent goal remains the same. In raising questions about Cruz's eligibility to occupy the Oval Office, he plants seeds of doubt and suspicion. It gives those contemplating Cruz support reason to reconsider and those looking to settle old scores an opportunity to do just that. Yes, we are looking at you, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
And it's no coincidence that this assault is aimed at an individual who has been running a very, very close second to Trump nationally and even grabbed a lead in Iowa, home of the first GOP contest on Feb. 1. A new Quinnipiac poll out Monday showed Trump claiming 31 percent and Cruz 29 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers' support. That, folks, is quite obviously well within the margin of error and a real indicator that, when it comes to Iowa, Trump is no shoo-in.
But while Trump's "birtherism" here is really aimed at one person, it's a close cousin to much broader form of suspicion Trump has also recently embraced.
And that is widespread voter fraud, which Trump alleged at a rally held inside a Claremont, N.H., high school gym last week. If birtherism is a means to undermine or at least raise lasting questions about the eligibility of the individual candidate, then claims about widespread voter fraud amount to just about the same for entire groups of voters.
Now, we will give Trump this: His comments about voter fraud did come in answer to an audience question. And The Washington Post's Jenna Johnson reported from the scene about the seemingly haphazard, just-yell-your-questions structure of the event. So, we are aware that some people will insist Trump's comments about voter fraud could not have been planned. They simply could not be part of some kind of suspicion-raising grand strategy.
But we would say this: Every candidate, including Trump, spends some time in the company of advisers who encourage -- no, insist -- that candidates make every effort possible to reinforce the themes of their own campaigns, remind voters of their unique attributes and strengths and buttress the strategy the candidate and the pros behind them think will win the election.
Those who aren't so good at it get called out for answering, say, a question about declining and stagnating wages with a prepackaged response about the details of their tax policy ideas. Those who are good at this aspect of politics -- and Trump ranks here -- can more subtly shift the conversation. They can connect everything and anything to what they view as the core issues of their campaign. Just think, for instance, how often some issue, some question, some challenge faced by the country brings Trump straight back to a discussion of his by-now much-talked-about "beautiful" wall financed by Mexico and the need to strike what Trump often describes a better deal with China.
For Trump right now, sowing some suspicion seeds about Cruz's eligibility for the White House and those who shape election outcomes both just happen to align nicely with his campaign's generalized message of the threats and problems posed by those born outside the United States and other various ne'er-do-wells. Even if divisive and unfounded, they might be prudent.
In New Hampshire, Trump currently holds a commanding lead with a claim to 32 percent of likely Republican primary voters' support, according to a Monmouth University poll also released Monday. In this poll, Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are tied for second with 14 percent of likely Republican primary voters. But pollsters also found the voters in New Hampshire are far from sure, with about 25 percent of them saying they are "still very much up for grabs." Another 40 percent of voters told researchers they have a "strong candidate preference" but would be willing to consider a switch.
So, you see, with Iowa just weeks away and Trump's lead already whittled to the possibly non-existent margin, victory there is far from assured. If he loses in Iowa, Trump will be looking to New Hampshire -- along with Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the others -- for a strong and meaningful showing.
Now that Trump has also raised the specter of widespread voter fraud -- an often-returned-to theme in conservative media and political circles -- he has also set up a very plausible and appealing explanation for losses in Iowa and/or New Hampshire. That explanation happens to be one very likely to rile up and turn out Trump supporters in subsequent states. Trump's rhetoric and policy ideas on immigration have, after all, played a pretty big role in getting him this far.
But wait. Isn't the integrity of an election a legitimate concern? Isn't that what makes democracy real? Well, of course. Both are reasonable goals. But to date, no one who has produced any objective and sound evidence of any widespread voter found anywhere in the United States in recent decades.
The logic and legitimacy of general concern about election integrity can and has been packaged before in ways that made its mostly Republican spokesmen. That helped generated cross-party support among all voters for measures such as Voter ID.
And look at Trump's comments in New Hampshire. They are subdued and devoid of open talk about race, ethnicity or immigrants. He said, "Look, you've got to have real security with the voting system. This voting system is out of control. You have people, in my opinion, that are voting many, many times. They don't want security; they don't want cards." It is, on its face, devoid of Trump's alleged straight talk about race and ethnicity and immigrants and changing demographics and the destructive tyranny of political correctness.
But Voter ID is an inherently racial issue. There has been openly expressed hope that it will reduce minority voter participation (see stories on Texas and Pennsylvania from 2012) and statistical evidence that the change disproportionately limits the ability of young voters and voters of color to participate.
Yes, we are aware that the combined black, Latino, Asian, Native American and biracial population of Iowa is just 13 percent. In New Hampshire, those same groups make up just less than 9 percent of the population. Plus, given that some of these people are children or non-citizens ineligible to vote, these groups represent just slivers of each state's current electorate. But since when do mathematical realities and documented truths hold Trump or Trump's voters back? A purported surge in illegal immigration has been part of the Trump campaign from the very beginning. Federal data says it does not exist.
We'll say it again. Birtherism is to the individual candidate what unproven claims of widespread voter fraud are to entire voter groups. Voters should be aware of exactly what a candidate who raises both might really be doing. Look for birtherism and voter fraud to become recurring themes in 2016.