WASHINGTON — In the more than 200 events he's held since launching his campaign for the White House 10 months ago, Ted Cruz has tested out an unorthodox strategy, one that could rewrite the rules of Republican presidential politics.
Since the Texas senator declared his candidacy in March, 40 percent of his public events have taken place in Iowa, according to a Texas Tribune analysis of his travel schedule as of Saturday. But beyond that first-test state, Cruz has held nearly a quarter of his campaign events in the so-called “SEC primary" states, a mostly southern mix of states that will host their primaries on March 1.
That breaks with tradition in GOP primary fights. In the past, presidential candidates poured almost all of their resources into Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina, the three earliest primary contests.
While other candidates are increasing their focus on those March 1 states, Cruz appears to be pursuing that strategy more aggressively, according to several people who have been following the campaigns.
“I haven’t seen anyone focus on the South the way that Cruz has,” said former Republican National Committee spokesman Doug Heye.
Heye said that's a reflection of Cruz's keen understanding of the changes to this year's primary schedule. Republicans have added three southern states — Alabama, Arkansas and delegate-rich Texas — to the March 1, or Super Tuesday, lineup, while subtracting a handful of northern states. The net result is increased nominating power concentrated in the South at a pivotal point in the primary schedule.
"We certainly have had Super Tuesdays before, but the way this lines up with the scheduled states in play and where a particular candidate could have a very strong day with a very strong impact has all come at the same time," Heye said.
The Texas Tribune assembled a database of 241 Cruz campaign events: 235 he has appeared at since launching his bid for the White House, and a handful of events scheduled in the future. That count only includes candidate forums, debates and campaign-sponsored events open to the press. It does not include private fundraisers or events Cruz attended in his official capacity as a U.S. senator.
Nothing illustrates how much is riding on Iowa for Cruz more than his travel schedule. The senator spent about 40 percent of his time on the trail in the Hawkeye State, everywhere from book signings to church services to a stop at a tractor store. Only 25 percent of his trips have taken him to New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina, the next three states on the primary calendar.
Cruz made more campaign trips to Des Moines, Iowa's largest city, than anywhere else in the country. But he's also made multiple trips to smaller communities that campaign officials view as pivotal to performing well in the state's Republican caucus. On Saturday, Cruz completed a six-day bus tour of Iowa with stops in 28 towns, including his fifth visit to Sioux City, a conservative bastion that helped deliver a 2008 caucus win to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
That focus has paid off: He is now the frontrunner in Iowa with less than a month to go before the Feb. 1 caucus.
Recent history has shown that an Iowa win does not assure a Republican nomination. The last Iowa victor to secure the GOP nomination in an open race was George W. Bush in 2000. Cruz and his team are open about their aim to replicate the long game Democrat Barack Obama successfully deployed against Hillary Clinton there in the 2008 Democratic nomination fight.
After the Iowa caucus and subsequent contests in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina comes March 1, when any Republicans left standing will compete for 624 delegates across 12 states, compared to the 133 delegates up for grabs in the earlier states.
Cruz has held 24 percent of his events thus far in March 1 states — Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming. Cruz signaled his focus on those states early on by kicking off his campaign with a speech at Liberty University in Virginia. He has since made at least one stop in nearly all of those states.
It’s a tactic that many Republicans are beginning to say might carry Cruz to the general election.
"If Cruz is able to do really well in the SEC primary, with the rationale that his campaign has talked about privately and he has talked about publicly," said Heye, the former RNC staffer, "this would go a long way with him getting the nomination.”