WASHINGTON – While the crowded GOP presidential field fixates on every polling boom and bust in the early primary states, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is running a different kind of race.
Cruz and his team are not chasing states — they’re chasing delegates.
Instead of betting his campaign on his February finishes in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, Cruz is aiming to vacuum up as many delegates as possible on March 1, when a swath of mostly Southern states, including Texas, host their nominating contests.
"We’re working ... to do everything possible to bank those 155 [Texas] delegates on March 1," Cruz's chief strategist, Jason Johnson, said. "If we’re able to do so, the odds are that Ted is the conservative standing after March 15 to square off against whoever the establishment candidate is at that point."
The Texas GOP primary is particularly complex — in structure, advertising costs, strategy, size and geography. Some Texas political insiders question whether campaigns, with the exceptions of Cruz, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, are preparing viable strategies to win Lone Star delegates.
Cruz is indeed campaigning heavily in the early states. And practically every GOP candidate has been through Texas to attend fundraisers and campaign events. But Cruz's primary strategy centers on March 1, when roughly 650 delegates will be up for grabs nationwide, including many from Texas. Most will be awarded proportionately, which means that statewide victories are not as important as running up the delegate count.
“I don’t want to say it’s everything, but at the end of the day, it is,” Johnson said.
Texas is the biggest prize that day; candidates will pick up most of their share of the state's 155 delegates based on their proportional totals in each of Texas' 36 congressional districts, including in Democratic strongholds.
It is also one of the most costly primaries to compete in, based on Texas' sheer size and its advertising costs. Television stations statewide will be jammed with political ads in February, from presidential contests to congressional and state legislative races.
Media experts predict a statewide week-long television buy will cost about $2.5 million for a presidential campaign and $3.5 million to $4 million for a super PAC. (By law, federal candidates secure lower rates than interest groups.) Presidential candidates could try to get around that cost by targeting ads to specific districts where they have unique appeal.
The Cruz campaign is preparing an advertising strategy in Texas and other states that layers media markets over congressional districts in order to get the biggest bang for the buck, Johnson said.
He also noted that Cruz is the only candidate in the GOP field who has actually run a campaign — his 2012 U.S. Senate bid — that crisscrossed every corner of Texas.
“When it goes to understanding of the congressional districts … just three years later, we’re very good at understanding where the votes are and how they split,” Johnson said.
Cruz's delegate strategy in Texas is unconventional in modern Republican politics; that's largely because in recent elections, the nomination has been close to sewn up after the first round of early states.
Even Cruz's critics are taking note of it.
"Look at today, he announced a Virgin Islands chair of his campaign," said Brian Walsh, a Republican strategist who has been critical of Cruz. "I think he is looking well beyond Super Tuesday, and he could drag this out all the way to the convention floor."
The proportional delegate system in Texas isn't new; it was first implemented in 2012. But that year, the change went mostly unnoticed because Mitt Romney had all but secured the GOP nomination by the time Texas Republicans went to the polls on May 29.
Some Republican operatives in Texas say a presidential campaign flying high in the polls could implode here without a strong ground game — and that there's little evidence many campaigns are paying attention to the state's rules.
Texas GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak won't go that far. But he said that Cruz — being a native son — has probably prevented some of his competitors from making a harder play for Texas this fall.
"With a lot of these candidates, Texas is too far down the road, and there’s too much uncertainty about the circumstances," he said. "You may not see any of that until January."
In addition to Cruz, GOP operatives say two other candidates are postured to do well in Texas come Mar. 1, so long as they're still standing. Bush has the financial and campaign infrastructure — as well as the family connections — to pick up delegates in Texas. And while Paul is struggling nationally, one of his senior advisers is former Texas GOP Chairman Steve Munisteri, who implemented the delegate rules during his time as chairman.
Mackowiak predicted that Bush could pick up delegates in Midland, his family’s home base early in George H.W. Bush’s career, and Paul could do well in Southeast Texas, the region his father, former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, represented in Congress for years.
How these Texas strategies play out is still unclear, given the uncharted territories of super PACs and a giant primary field. But many Texans are hopeful that the nation's most populous Republican state will finally have a chance to play kingmaker in presidential politics — not just rainmaker.
GOP fundraiser Roy Bailey, who previously raised money for Rick Perry, said so often candidates come through Texas merely to fundraise, keeping one eye over their shoulders for fear of neglecting retail politicking back in the early primary states.
This time is different.
“With Texas being one of the March 1 states, it’s even better justification to spend time here both politically and from a fundraising perspective," Bailey said. "They can really make hay."
He added: “It’s a better use of their time than any other state in the country."