U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s announcement on Monday officially declaring his Republican presidential run wasn’t just an effort to soak up all the media attention as the first major party candidate to announce. It was also a signal to campaign staffers and donors to join his team.
“His problem is that in a very crowded field that includes some very accomplished people like [ex-Florida Gov.] Jeb Bush and [New Jersey Gov. Chris] Christie and [Ohio Gov.] John Kasich and a bunch of other senators, I think he felt he needed to break to the front of the pack with an early and unambiguous declaration that he’s running for president,” said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “He’s looking for that moment in the sun where he can make his case and hope that big donors, as well as lots and lots of small donors on the Internet,” support him.
The latest poll numbers have not looked good for Cruz. A CNN survey from last week showed the Texas senator in eighth place out of 14 possible Republican contenders for president. He also has a negative net favorability rating. Roughly 50 percent of American adults are familiar with him and 22 percent view him favorably, while 28 percent have an unfavorable view, according to a Gallup poll released earlier this month.
"I do think that one of the reasons why Ted Cruz announced first and is looking to get out there is because some of the polling data … basically shows kind of among the talked-about candidates, his familiarity is fairly average in the field but his favorability is on the low side," said Lara Brown, director of the political management program at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "So I think it's clear that he's wanting to change some perception about who he is before he becomes better known. ... Ted Cruz is to a certain extent wanting to change his press [more] than wanting to change himself and his candidacy."
With Bush building a thorough organization and other candidates laying the groundwork, Cruz had to do something fast to boost his standing both in the polls and in the money race, according to Jason Husser, assistant professor of political science at Elon University in North Carolina and director of the Elon University Poll. By announcing first, Cruz improves his name recognition among Americans who haven’t closely followed his career.
“It’s going to raise his profile nationality,” Husser said. “There are a lot of people that still don’t pay attention to what goes on in the halls of Congress,” where Cruz has led the fight against Obamacare and was instrumental in causing the 16-day government shutdown in 2013 over the health care law.
Cruz also was under pressure to announce now because his Senate colleague, Rand Paul of Kentucky, had circled April 7 as his announcement date. Meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida may also announce soon with the Senate going on recess from March 30 to April 10. Bush is reportedly trying to raise $100 million before the end of the month to push other rivals pre-emptively out of the race.
“The main campaign that he’s in right now is trying to keep up with the Bush fundraising juggernaut,” Husser said. “He [Cruz] was going to run into a problem if he waited much longer. He wouldn’t have been able to secure key party elites and money.”
But Cruz’s announcement was more than trying to catch Bush in the polls. As a tea party-backed candidate who frequently invoked his religion during his speech, Cruz has competition among the social conservatives of the party, including ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. “He has to try and jumpstart his campaign in order to become the social conservative favorite, hoping that he can get around Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee,” Jillson said.
One of those candidates has something Cruz doesn’t have thus far: a big-money backer. Multi-millionaire Foster Friess’ dollars helped Santorum win the Iowa caucuses in 2012, and the conservative businessman is sure to support Santorum again in 2016.
And the wealth of someone like Friess pales before billionaire mega-donors like the Koch brothers or Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who bankrolled former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s campaign in 2012. Those kinds of donors also want results in exchange for their contributions, and they would be reluctant to back Cruz when he has little shot of winning the nomination, let alone the general. “He’s looking for a few good men with more money than sense,” Jillson said.
Cruz’s best bet may be the Howard Dean model of fundraising. The former Vermont governor became the early frontrunner for the 2004 Democratic nomination and the top fundraiser by tapping into grassroots appeal and turning that enthusiasm into online donations. Cruz has a similar following among tea party activists and sympathizers and would need a similar fundraising base to compete in 2016.
“He’s going to have to distinguish himself ideologically,” Husser said. “He won’t have more connections than the Bush family overall. He’s not going to have the full monopoly on a conservative take on things, but he might be able to be the most anti-President Obama than any other candidate.”
At this point, Cruz’s announcement is unlikely to affect the strategies of higher-tiered Republican candidates like Bush, who is much more moderate with his support of immigration reform. Bush can afford to take a wait-and-see approach until Cruz gains steam. “One of the things about being the front-runner and having the fully developed campaign structure and national fundraising is that you don’t overreact,” Jillson said. “You can go a little bit slower and wait and watch and see what develops around Cruz. Until that happens, you have your own strategy. So you’re going to run your program until someone proves to you that you have to respond to them.”