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What Might Ted Cruz’s First and Only Run for Office Tell Us About his Presidential Campaign?

Michael Stravato/Texas Tribune
Ted Cruz celebrates on Election Night 2012.

Reporters and political pundits across the county are scrambling to handicap Ted Cruz's chances of winning the Republican Presidential nomination. But unlike most other expected candidates, Cruz has little campaign experience to review. He rose from relative obscurity to win his 2012 U.S. Senate race.

So what can that race tell us about Cruz’s Presidential chances?

The national media, and especially political critics of Senator Cruz, have been quick to point out his poor showing in recent state and national polls.

He's averaging about 9th place in Iowa. But the Tea Party darling, who is revered by Texas conservative activists, started his 2012 Senate run in a similar position.

In fact, that bad beginning was a favorite story of his on the campaign trail.

"You know when we started this campaign, there wasn't anybody in the state that thought I had a prayer. I was at two percent in the polls, and the margin of error was three percent," Cruz said in an interview just days before easily winning the GOP nomination for Senate in 2012.

So what can we take from that race and apply to Cruz's first national run? Let's start with his successful transition from virtual unknown to conquering hero. Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University, says the difference between 2012 and 2016 is that Cruz is much better known now, so people may have cemented their feelings about him.

"So moving them from the negative column or the neutral column into the positive column is going to be a much tougher task then he found in the 2012 Senate race," Jones says.

Part of Cruz's strategy for overcoming his low poll numbers in Texas was to visit with every Republican group that would have him, so expect him to do the same in Iowa. But unlike his 2012 opponent David Dewhurst, who was a no-show at almost every event, Iowa is not short on political candidates.

"Whereas in Iowa, he's going to see Scott Walker there, Jeb Bush there, Rand Paul there, Rick Perry there, Rick Santorum there, Mike Huckabee there, and others," Jones says.

Cruz was also heavily outspent in 2012 by Dewhurst, an establishment-backed candidate with a personal fortune that fueled his campaign. But Cruz was able to effectively use the free help provided by grassroots activists, and, based on his speech announcing his presidential run on Monday, it's a group of workers he's ready to tap into nationally.

"If you're ready to join a grassroots army across this nation," Cruz said during his announcement at Liberty University, "I'm going to ask you to break a rule here today, and to take out your cell phones, and to text the word constitution to the number 33733."

Mark Jones says that ability to rally and excite activists will be key if Cruz wants to compete.

"While he needs money to run a campaign, he does not need nearly as much as his establishment rival," Jones says. "And so while Jeb Bush may need $80 or $90 million to be viable candidate, Ted Cruz can probably get a similar bang for the buck if he gets $40 million or $50 million."

So now that we have an idea of how Cruz might run his presidential campaign, what needs to happen for him to repeat his surprise ascension in Texas? Jones says if Cruz were to finish among the top three candidates in Iowa, it would be because was able to unite social conservatives and movement conservatives into a single voting bloc.

"So he would have needed to vanquish Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee, as well as raised some serious concerns about Scott Walker's conservative bona fides."

So it will likely be a much harder climb than his Senate win, which brings us to the final lesson from 2012: 
Don't underestimate Ted Cruz.

Ben Philpott is the Managing Editor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @BenPhilpottKUT.
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