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Why Donald Trump and Ted Cruz's battle for Iowa is so important

CLEAR LAKE, IOWA — As Donald Trump lingered for a few minutes to meet potential caucus-goers after a Saturday rally, one man in an American flag cap tried to push through the throng.

"Donald! Donald!" he shouted. "Sign my sign!"

Shortly afterward, the man proudly displayed his newly autographed handiwork: "Trump 2016: There Will Be Hell Toupée."

Andrew Prokop

The rally at Clear Lake's Surf Ballroom — the site of Buddy Holly's last performance before his death in a 1959 plane crash — was a raucous, freewheeling affair that attracted a crowd of around 1,700. And many of them — like the gentleman above, who ignored this reporter's requests for comment, preferring instead to wave his sign and repeatedly yell, "You can do it!" in the style of The Waterboy — were mainly eager to get a glimpse of celebrity, in one of just two events Trump held in Iowa this weekend.

In his efforts to win Iowa, Trump has relied on rallies like these. He makes few retail campaign stops and little effort to cultivate key conservative endorsees, and his ground game is embarrassingly dysfunctional (if this report by the New York Times's Trip Gabriel is anything to go by). And he hardly even bothers trying to tailor his message to Iowa and its heavily evangelical electorate. His strategy, instead, relies on his celebrity, his media megaphone, and the uglier parts of his message — and his hope that all these can help turn out not traditionally Republican voters to the caucuses.

Yet that same day, the other candidate at the top of Iowa polls was holding a series of events with a very different flavor:

Cruz speaks at Back Home Country Cookin’ in Strawberry Point, Iowa, early Saturday afternoon.
Andrew Prokop

To wrap up this six-day leg of his "Cruzin' to Caucus" bus tour, Ted Cruz packed several smaller venues that let Iowans see him up close — events with a very religious flavor. "We are seeing an awakening and a spirit of revival that is sweeping this country," he said at the Back Home Country Cookin' restaurant in Strawberry Point. (A few attendees chimed in with "Mmhm"s and "Hallelujah"s.)

Cruz believes his path to victory is to win the evangelical vote that propelled Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum to their triumphs in the 2008 and 2012 GOP caucuses. So he's trotting out big-name religious right supporters, pressing the flesh in retail campaign events across the state, and trying to prove to Iowans that he's a man of faith with a strong character who will fight for what they believe in.

Furthermore, on top of mobilizing evangelicals Cruz is trying to position himself as a strong and true conservative — he repeatedly mentioned Ronald Reagan in each event, positioning himself as the anti-Washington keeper of the Gipper's flame.

The upshot is clear: Cruz thinks he can win by mobilizing the traditional conservative base whose pulse he's spent years taking. But Trump is hoping to win by using his star power and xenophobic rhetoric to transform the composition of the GOP caucus electorate. And the question of which of them succeeds will have major implications not just for the primaries but for just what the Republican Party actually is today.

Ted Cruz thinks he can win by mobilizing evangelicals and traditional conservatives

Cruz campaigns in Waukon, Iowa, on Saturday morning.
Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post via Getty

Fifty-seven percent of Republican caucus-goers in 2012 were evangelical or born-again Christians, and 60 percent in 2008 were, according to entrance polls. And Cruz's pitch — excellently delivered at all three events I saw — was aimed at winning those voters over in several ways:

  • He emphasized his endorsements from evangelical leaders like Bob Vander Plaats, the president of the Iowa Family Leader. "Bob is such a tremendous leader," Cruz said in Waukon. "He has been such a tremendous voice for Iowa values, for life, for marriage, for religious liberty. For standing up and remembering who we are."
  • He portrayed himself as a man of family values and good character — having his wife introduce him and vouch for how thoughtful he is (he never forgets a Valentine's Day gift!), and telling a story about a humorous prayer he overheard his daughter make.
  • He promised to fight for religious conservatives' priorities on an array of issues, from ending "religious persecution" by the Justice Department to saying that he'd investigate Planned Parenthood for those "horrible videos."
  • At the close of his appearances, he asked attendees to do three things: to caucus for him, to get others to caucus for him ... and to pray. As he put it on Waukon on Saturday:

Between now and February 1 I would ask each and every one of you to lift up our country in prayers. Just one minute a day. In the morning when you get up. When you're shaving. When you're having lunch. When you're putting your kids down to speech. When you're laying down to go to bed. Just one minute saying, "Father God, please, continue this awakening, continue this spirit of revival, awaken the body of Christ! To pull us back from this abyss."

But it would be a mistake to think Cruz's campaign is entirely about evangelical or religious issues — he is trying to define himself as the true conservative in the race, not pigeonhole himself as a factional Christian right candidate.

To that end, Cruz was flanked by Rep. Steve King of Iowa, known for his hard-right stance on unauthorized immigration, who called Cruz a "full-spectrum constitutional conservative." And at his Waverly event, the campaign played a video where supporters of Ron Paul's 2012 presidential campaign explained why they were backing Cruz this time around.

Most notably, Cruz positioned himself as the heir to Reagan's legacy several times, arguing that the country was ready for another Reagan Revolution — and that he could bring about that revolution. His closing pitch at each event was a twofer, weaving together Reagan and the Bible. As he put it in Waukon:

We're here today standing on the promise of 2nd Chronicles 7:14. "If my people which are called by my name shall humble themselves in prayer and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear their prayer, and will forgive their sin and I will heal their land." In January 1981, when Ronald Reagan took the oath of office, his left hand was resting on 2nd Chronicles 7:14. As the manifestation of that promise from Scripture. We have done it before and we can do it again.

Most of the voters I talked to came away feeling very positive about Cruz. "I was very impressed. Very impressed," said Sandy Riese, an undecided conservative voter from Waukon. "He's so connected to Reagan's ideas."

"There wasn't anything to argue with," her daughter Katie agreed. "I thought he was very articulate, and he seemed to have it figured out."

What was clear, overall, is that Cruz's conception of the Republican Party and its conservative base was a very fixed one — focused on winning over those already staunchly conservative and loyal to the party. Though Cruz is indeed loathed by the GOP Washington establishment, he has worked very hard to cultivate the conservative establishment and existing conservative Republican voters.

So though Cruz's nomination would give Washington Republicans agita, it wouldn't mean a seismic change for the GOP. The party's core groups of supporters would essentially remain the same, and there's no real reason to expect any influx of new voters to the party or to Cruz's banner in the general election.

Donald Trump hopes that Donald Trump can transform the Iowa and general election electorates

The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake on Saturday.
Andrew Prokop

A few hours later, at the Donald Trump rally in Clear Lake, God was little in evidence. The only time the deity came up was, naturally, during a regular Trump boast: "I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created," he said. "That I can tell you. The greatest! I'll be the best!"

The hour-long speech was pure Trump — rambling, self-obsessed, sometimes comedic and sometimes xenophobic. While Cruz's somewhat smaller crowds seemed to hang on his every word, my impression is that the Trump attendees were much less engaged. For lengthy sections of the speech — Trump's seemingly endless bragging about his poll standing, his praise of a Time magazine cover story titled "How Trump Won," his boasts about the power of his Twitter account — the only applause seemed to come from a small group of die-hards.

But when he got to certain particular topics, the crowd revved up again. Here's a Trump riff on refugees that elicited strikingly loud applause:

"The World Trade Center got knocked down! People are being killed all over the place! By the way, when I left today, Cologne, Germany — which is one of the most peaceful places — they're having riots in the street, people have been just beat to hell, women have been raped, what's going on in Germany is just unbelievable! And we have to be smart! We can't take these people from the line that we have no idea who they are!" [wild applause]

Furthermore, Trump made an explicit pitch that to win in 2016, the GOP needs a candidate who won't just mobilize traditional conservatives. "The Republicans have a structural disadvantage to start off with," he said. "And I think I'm gonna do great in states that are not considered in play."

He continued: "Whether it's liberal or not-liberal, whether it's Democrat or whatever, people want safety, they want our country to be great again, they want lower taxes. So I think I'm gonna win states that people back there, with the cameras" — he gestured to the pen where reporters at his events are quarantined — "don't even talk about!"

Trump went on to assert that he would win over far more African-American and Hispanic voters than traditional Republicans could — "They know that I'm bringing the jobs back from China and Japan and Mexico!"

All this is questionable, to say the least. But it's a question the caucus results will shed at least some light on: namely, can Trump get nontraditional voters who aren't staunch conservatives to turn out to the caucuses?

If the Trump faction is loyal and motivated enough to turn out in huge numbers (despite Trump's apparently anemic ground game), then it would mean the ground has shifted under Ted Cruz's feet — and that Trump has managed to change the basic, long-understood idea of just what the Republican Party is.

And if Trump's xenophobic rhetoric does manage to bring many previously apathetic white voters to the GOP's banner, the party's establishment will have to reckon with that fact — and decide whether they do in fact want to be the party of Trump going forward.