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Where Does Ted Cruz Go From Here?

For this week’s 2016 Slack chat, the FiveThirtyEight politics team talks about what rewards Ted Cruz can expect to reap from his victory in the Iowa caucuses on Monday. (Also, you should sign up for our weekly 2016 newsletter, “What I Thought About Over The Weekend.”)

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Hopefully you all got some sleep after a late night, because we’ve got the future to consider! Ted Cruz’s future, in particular. Cruz outperformed his polls and won the Iowa caucuses somewhat comfortably, with Donald Trump finishing second and Marco Rubio a strong third (just 1 percentage point behind Trump). So how does Cruz’s Iowa win affect his chances of winning the GOP nomination? Let’s start with what the Iowa results mean in New Hampshire, which votes less than a week from now, and then we’ll talk about Cruz’s path more broadly.

Any thoughts on how New Hampshire Republicans will react to Cruz’s win in Iowa?

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): According to our New Hampshire forecasts, Cruz is basically in a multi-way tie for second place in polling average at 12 percent. I expect him to grow from that based off his victory, but make no mistake: New Hampshire is a different state than Iowa. If Cruz wins the same percentage of very conservatives, conservatives and moderates/liberals in New Hampshire as he did in Iowa, he would probably get only about 20 percent of the vote.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): It’s fair to assume that Cruz has a fairly low ceiling in New Hampshire. At least I think — until we see what the polls look like in 48 hours, I’m not that sure of anything. But it seems plausible to me that you could have three or even four candidates piled up in the high teens to mid-20s.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Yeah, so I think based on nothing but my gut of guts, and belief in the balance of the universe, that Cruz doesn’t win or come in second place in New Hampshire — he finishes third to Trump (eh, maybe?) and Rubio, who had a very fruitful night last night. I think Cruz’s people are … elsewhere on the primary map, and he’s smart and knows that.

micah: I get why Cruz may have limited upside in New Hampshire. In a lot of ways he’s the typical “peaks in Iowa” candidate, like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum: strong appeal to religious conservatives. But doesn’t Cruz also have some tea party bona fides? Couldn’t those help him in New Hampshire?

clare.malone: Sure, that’s true. I think if I were Cruz, I would start playing up my constitutional lawyer thing in New Hampshire. He’s a true originalist, and he’s pretty radical and sincere in his beliefs about states rights, liberty, etc. etc., which I think could play well with the New England crowd. He’s got a nice little résumé there.

natesilver: Is New Hampshire really a tea party state? Is “tea party” a useful label anymore?

micah: Well, Cruz seems more of a limited government conservative than either Santorum or Huckabee. And that could work in the “live free or die” state.

harry: I mean Cruz did win 27 percent in Iowa among those voters who said government spending was most important. But he did worst on economy/jobs in the Iowa entrance poll. There are going to be a TON of those voters in New Hampshire.

clare.malone: Nate, do you think the tea party has seeped into the party bloodstream so much that it’s not a faction anymore, is that what you mean?

natesilver: Narrowly speaking, the tea party is more concentrated in the South and the Mountain West more than in New England. Whereas New Hampshire has more of a libertarian streak.

clare.malone: Paul! Paul! Paul!

harry: I mean Cruz won 9 percent among moderates and liberals last night. You know how many of those voters there are in New Hampshire? They made up 47 percent of voters in the last GOP New Hampshire primary in 2012. And a lot of those voters (26 percent) went for Ron Paul, who you might think of as that libertarian candidate Nate and Clare mentioned.

natesilver: Yeah. Occam’s razor is that New Hampshire is moderate, and Cruz isn’t.

In fact, Rubio might also be a little bit too far to the right for New Hampshire.

micah: But the vote will be pretty split, right? Couldn’t someone win with a vote share in the mid-20s? Even low 20s?

clare.malone: Maybe Trump slips thanks to the face-fall last night and someone like John Kasich picks up votes over a Rubio/Cruz?

natesilver: Trump 22 percent, Rubio 21, Kasich 18, Cruz 17 or something in that vicinity is an entirely plausible outcome

harry: One thing we don’t know is how undeclared voters in New Hampshire, who can vote in either party’s primary (but just one), will react to the Democratic and Republican results last night. The more of those undeclared voters who vote in the Republican primary, the better it is for Kasich.

clare.malone: FYI, as we type this, Scott Brown will reportedly endorse Trump tonight.

natesilver: Another guy who hasn’t won an election in five years.

micah: GAME-CHANGER!!!

clare.malone: Do we think he could influence New Hampshire voters just as he did thousands of teenage girls in his early work in Cosmo?

harry: What state is Scott Brown from again?

micah: I guess a lot depends on what happens to Trump’s numbers?

clare.malone: I think they slide.

micah: All right, let’s say Trump’s support slides — where do those voters go?

natesilver: Maybe they were never there to begin with.

micah: Are you on mushrooms, Nate?

clare.malone: Yeah, there’s that, what Nate said. In Iowa, those who were Trump supporters generally said Cruz was the other person on their list, but I’m not sure how that’ll square up with New Hampshirites (is that how you say it?).

harry: Nate is on 10 cans of Red Bull plus a Coke.

natesilver: I’ll try not to get too pedantic here, but the polls overestimated Trump’s support in Iowa. Which is, not unimportantly, the only state to have voted so far. So people citing Trump’s polls in future states as proof of how resilient he is aren’t making any sense at all.

clare.malone: There is half a bottle of Coke and a chocolate on his desk. The man is just on fire today, (semi) au naturel.

natesilver: With all that said, it’s entirely plausible for Trump to win New Hampshire.

Having not seen any data yet, I’d probably still call him the plurality favorite, although I’d take the field against him.

harry: I’m really in a wait-and-see mode on the polls. Before then, I’ll say Trump has a shot, but I remain skeptical.

clare.malone: Yeah, the more I think about it, the more I have no idea where the seeping-away Trump votes go … maybe they don’t vote?

And then the people voting in the more elite lane of the party fill up the space.

natesilver: FWIW, I like Kasich’s chances a little better than Jeb Bush’s or Chris Christie’s in New Hampshire because he’s running explicitly as a moderate, instead of as a (failing) full-spectrum consensus candidate.

harry: Kasich also has a real chance to “expand the electorate,” Nate.

clare.malone: I’m actually excited to see Kasich campaign in New Hampshire, to see how he’s working the room…I’m guessing it’s going to be similar to what we saw with Jeb in Iowa, except Jeb is a dead man walking, and Kasich is on the rise. (Saying you’re excited to see a moderate campaign is like saying you’re excited to eat plain spaghetti with butter, I realize, but whatever. It’s out there.)

natesilver: Jeb’s main virtue in the race may be making Kasich and Christie look good by comparison. Christie actually had a really bad month in New Hampshire, having fallen from about 11 percent to 7 percent in our polling average.

micah: Back to Cruz … Our colleague Carl Bialik noted (pivoting off a piece by GOP pollster and friend of the site Kristen Soltis Anderson) one other thing to watch as we see how much of a bump Cruz gets: Iowa has gone some ways toward leveling the public’s interest — as measured by Google searches — in Trump vs. Cruz vs. Rubio. Trump typically swamps the other two, and he still leads, but …


micah: And that’s BEFORE Cruz won the state!

natesilver: The theory that the ballot test reflects a combination of favorable ratings and media coverage looks really good after last night.

harry: I mean the question here is very simple: How can Trump win when he just lost with more media attention than I imagine would be given to a sex scandal involving the Kardashians and The Situation?

clare.malone: Harry, you know who the Kardashians are??

natesilver: And Iowa suggests that even if the national media coverage is still extremely Trump intensive, voters will consume a more even allocation of news before they actually go out and vote.

We keep getting into these loops and eddies about Trump and Rubio and everyone except Cruz, who won Iowa last night, and who’s a clear second in national polls (and could be in first nationally by tomorrow for all we know). Betting markets have Cruz’s nomination chances at just 13 percent, which seems way low.

micah: OK, so let’s talk about Cruz’s path more generally: He would seem to have a favorable electorate in South Carolina, which vote after New Hampshire, with Republicans voting on Feb. 20.

natesilver: I think so, yes, although South Carolina is not as conservative as you might think.

harry: I think what we want to see from Cruz is the ability to win in a state that isn’t as religious as Iowa. New Hampshire won’t be the final test for that; South Carolina isn’t a great one either, but winning there keeps the ball rolling.

clare.malone: If you look at just where he’s spent his time, Cruz has been hanging out in Iowa the most, and South Carolina second. So, his feet are doing the talking.

micah: If Cruz does end up relying mostly on religious conservatives, though, are there enough of them in the GOP primary electorate for him to win the nomination?

natesilver: So the basic case for Cruz is that he gets the Huckabee/Santorum evangelical coalition, plus a few movement conservative types, plus he has a lot of money, and he’s a really good tactician, and has a good ground game. That’s … something. We know that the Santobee coalition isn’t enough to win the nomination on its own. But combined with Cruz’s various other advantages, it’s interesting.

harry: So to give you an idea, 36 percent of voters in the 2012 South Carolina Republican primary identified as “very conservative.” In Iowa last night, it was 40 percent. The key difference? Moderates/liberals were 32 percent in 2012 in South Carolina, while they were just 15 percent in Iowa last night.

natesilver: One thing about South Carolina and certain other southern states is that the moderate voters in them tend to identify as Republican rather than Democratic. And some of them vote in the Republican primaries too.

harry: Yes, remember John McCain won South Carolina in 2008, and he got over 40 percent of the vote in 2000. But it’s still overwhelmingly religious. It was 65 percent born-again/evangelical Christian in 2012. That’s pretty much what Iowa was last night.

natesilver: South Carolina’s not the worst approximation for the GOP electorate overall, which is part of what makes it interesting. Prior to last night, the polls there were a pretty good match for the national numbers.

clare.malone: So, the fact that Cruz has the, what was it, Santobee momentum (?) is certainly interesting, and yes, he’s smart, but doesn’t he also have this fundamental element of unlikability that’s going to hurt him in more and more places as the calendar year goes by? I guess I see his campaign as a savvy one, but does he alienate all the moderates while turning out a base?

harry: Cruz came in third place among “somewhat conservatives” last night, so it wasn’t just moderates. He’s got to do better among mainstream conservatives.

natesilver: I’ll admit to finding Cruz’s delivery a little grating personally. But his favorability ratings are reasonably good with GOP voters.

clare.malone: But part of me wonders if that’s just because he’s being compared to Trump, and looks better for it.

natesilver: Here’s the thing, though. Cruz will probably never be a consensus candidate. A lot of GOP elites vehemently oppose him (although some factions support him). He’s not going to make a lot of friends along the way. But he’s a guy who might get 50 percent + 1 of the delegates.

clare.malone: What if Trump media attention eases off and people start getting more familiar with the Cruz that everyone in the Senate knows and hates?

harry: To me, Cruz needs this to be a three-way race for as long as possible. Once it’s a two-way race the heat will be on Cruz.

natesilver: Cruz reminds me of Gary Hart 1984 in a lot of ways. Another guy who had a reputation for tactical brilliance, and not getting along all that well with his colleagues. Unlike Hart, Cruz doesn’t get a lot of mainstream media adoration, although maybe that’s not a terrible thing with GOP primary voters.

micah: Yeah, to what extent do we think Cruz’s chances of winning the nomination are out of his hands? Who does he want to do well and who does he want to disappear? Who does he want in that three-way race, Harry?

harry: I mean he wants Trump in there. It’s tough to come off as obnoxious with Trump still in it.

clare.malone: I think he really loves having Jeb in the race because Jeb has such a Rubio fixation that Cruz doesn’t have to worry all that much about attacking Rubio hard. And yeah, Cruz likes drafting off Trump in the sense that I think Trump makes Cruz look very reasonable to the average GOP voter.

natesilver: I’m not so sure Cruz wants Trump in the race. Cruz’s best chance might be to win lots of delegates in the South, overperform in caucus states and just get to 50 percent + 1 against Rubio. I’m sure Cruz already has an elaborate strategy for how to win a contested convention. But that’s usually not what you’re aiming for. And that really could be a possibility if all three of Cruz, Trump and Rubio stay strong.

harry: As soon as it’s a two-way against Rubio, Cruz will have almost all the national party actors turn against him. He’ll also become the “very conservative” candidate. Rubio is more conservative than 50 percent of the party, but the moderates/mainstream conservatives will rally to him because he’s more moderate than Cruz. Trump, however, was able to win over some of those moderate voters.

What Cruz needs in my mind is for this to remain a three-way race when we get to the winner-take-all states. If he gets into a one-on-one with Rubio in the North, Rubio is going to start pulling massive delegate totals. That’s especially the case because a lot of these northern states are winner-take-all.

natesilver: Hmm, maybe this is trickier for Cruz than I thought once you start to game it out. I’d still stand by the conclusion, though, that forest-for-the-trees, assigning him only a 13 percent chance of the nomination is way too low.

harry: That I agree with.

Quick reaction to the Iowa results from our elections podcast team. Listen above, or subscribe on iTunes.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.