NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland—In a parallel universe, Ted Cruz would have victoriously taken the stage at CPAC as the president of the United States.
And in a room away from the main Conservative Political Action Conference stage on Thursday morning, former aides to the Texas senator’s presidential campaign tried to create a Cruztopia, a place where Cruz won the Republican nomination.
The “boot camp” held before Cruz’s speech, was titled ‘Case Study: How the Cruz Campaign Motivated Activists to Get Involved” reviewed the deeply calculated, data-driven strategy gave Cruz some success.
But, missing from the lecture was the reality of how that strategy soon fell prey to the much larger wave of grassroots enthusiasm for Trump, a candidate who openly disdained data and polls throughout the 2016 presidential contest in favor of personal instinct and raucous rallies.
Donald Trump won 41 Republican nomination contests, compared to Cruz’s 11.
But Cruz’s former campaign officials—Director of Research Chris Wilson, adviser David Polyansky, and Rapid Response Director Brian Phillips focused in on one moment where Cruz’s fortunes seemed the brightest—their win in the Iowa caucuses, the first Republican nomination contest.
Their talk centered on ‘crafting a winning campaign,’ and were filled with complicated campaign techniques: using A/B testing on Facebook to inform targeted messaging polls that would guage support for a particular candidate, for example.
They spoke about how they modelled 73,245 Cruz voters in Iowa; and how they targeted voters in Tennessee by discovering that outlawing red light cameras was a hot issue among women ages 30 to 45 there. They gave each voter a ‘Cruz Score’ and spoke glowingly of their mobile app, and ‘hybrid model based tracking.’
They also missed the point—that in an election where candidates craved authenticity, these methods screamed ‘scheming politician.’
Cruz was at the helm of a well-run political campaign—that lost to Trump’s relatively small, off-the-cuff, by-the-gut campaign. Cruz had a professional ‘rapid response’ operation and some of the best thinkers on analytics in the country—and lost to Trump, a man whose rapid response operation seemed largely to be a smart phone where he personally wrote out tweets.
His aides brushed past questions about the limitations of their data-driven strategy during a Q&A period, blaming the media coverage for their loss.
Citing a New York Times article which looked at Trump’s impact in the media, Wilson said that Trump may have had more media coverage than any person ever, and receives more coverage than the next 1,000 famous people put together.
For his part, Cruz received a standing ovation when he took the stage but it was immediately clear he was not the rockstar he once was at this event just a year ago.
And his speech illustrated in some ways why his professorial intellect and temperament fell short where Trump’s careless rhetoric succeeded.
Following the initial standing ovation, Cruz never got a response from the crowd that equalled it.
He spoke about the need to pass a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on politicians; gave an intelligent but ultimately boring overview of judicial activism in various courts; and told a crowd packed with millennials an anecdote involving Anthony Scalia and Robert Bork in the early 1980s.
Even his attempts to make fun of the left felt like dad jokes. It would be “be fun” to retroactively impeach Obama, Cruz said facetiously. At another time, he added, “I just like making Chuck Schumer twitch.”
“They are in denial, and they’re angry… I’ve never seen anything like it,” Cruz said of the left.
And bizarrely enough, Cruz predicted that there would be another Supreme Court seat opening by this summer. How the Republican senator would have insight into this—which would only happen due to the resignation or death of a sitting justice—was unclear. He didn’t elaborate on why he made this prediction.
His message did not appear to inspire the audience: talk about a flat tax, confirming a Supreme Court Justice, and repealing Obamacare hardly made a dent in a world where Trump’s media presence reigns above all else.
“The grassroots have the ability to get people’s attention, to hold our elected officials accountable,” Cruz told the audience. “The message I am conveying, to President Trump, to the cabinet, to leaders in both houses, is real simple: Let’s do what we promised.”