Congratulations to Ted Cruz, who is now the first official belle of the 2016 Republican presidential primary ball. His advisers believe that being the first to declare will give Cruz a boost among the right-wing of his party and enable him to tap into resources that entering later would not. Or as Republican strategist Dave Carney was quoted in The New York Times as saying:
There’s an advantage to being first. He’s now the only one running for president, instead of engaging in this Kabuki dance that the others are.
To me, this illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the primary process.
Declaring first will give Cruz a superficial and temporary boost. Once the other candidates declare, they too will each receive a burst of press coverage. In 2012, for instance, there were more ups-and-downs in the primary polling than on the Coney Island Cyclone.
But what’s important right now isn’t where you stand in the polls; it’s where you stand with donors and activists. While Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee and Scott Walker haven’t filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), they have been running for months. In fact, not declaring and instead raising money for your super PAC holds distinct financial advantages in raising unlimited funds. Bush’s apparently successful push to raise money in the early going is one of the reasons that he is a top candidate, even if he has a potential ideological problem.
Candidates other than Cruz have been visiting states that will hold the early contests — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — frequently. In fact, Rand Paul, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum touched down in Iowa and New Hampshire a lot more often than Cruz earlier in the year. Do you really think activists in the early states care about a slip of paper filed to the FEC? Party actors know who’s running, even if they aren’t officially running.
By these measures, Cruz is actually late to the party. He has fallen behind the leading contenders. A candidate who isn’t as flawed as Cruz could afford such a misstep. Cruz, though, needs to run a perfect campaign to have any shot of winning. He’s already failing to do so.