On several recent occasions, we've wondered what an inevitable Trump-on-Cruz attack barrage might look like. Now we know. Following Cruz's half-denied and deflected private statements questioning Trump's judgment -- and with Cruz taking the lead in two fresh Iowa polls, which we'll examine shortly -- Trump has unleashed a torrent of vitriol against the Texas Senator. At a rally over the weekend, Trump ripped Cruz as "very anti-Iowa" for his principled stand against market-distorting ethanol subsidies, tossing in a bizarre non-sequitur about Cruz's faith, for good measure:
Trump says he likes Cruz, but "not a lot of Evangelicals come out of Cuba"— Nate Cohn (@Nate_Cohn) December 12, 2015
This isn't the first time Trump has gratuitously raised a rival's religious beliefs in a sleazy, 'I'm just saying' context. For his part, Trump says he's a mainline Christian who can't remember ever asking God for forgiveness, and who declines to discuss any passages of his self-described favorite book, the Bible. Trump wasn't through. On Sunday morning, he assailed Cruz's temperament (!), labeling the first-term Senator a "maniac:"
Extraordinary. Part of this line of attack includes a shot at Cruz for calling Mitch McConnell a liar, a flashpoint widely applauded by grassroots conservatives. Unlike Cruz, Trump says, "I get along with everybody." Trump is way off-brand here (and here, shamefully), echoing 'the establishment's complaints about Cruz's methods and tactics, in an appeal to 'go along to get along' pragmatism. He's clearly counting on (a) his followers not caring one whit about his whiplash-inducing posturing, and (b) Cruz adamantly refusing to return fire, for fear of alienating a voting bloc he hopes to inherit down the line. Say what you will about Trump, both bets are pretty rational. Trump has started emphasizing the latter point, seemingly as a means of humiliating Cruz and asserting his dominance. His backhanded professions of admiration for the Texan increasingly include pointed, unsubtle implications that Cruz is a gutless, smarmy phony:
"He’s a nice guy. I mean, everything I say he agrees with me, no matter what I say," Trump said on Saturday. "I like him. He’s been so nice to me. I mean, I can say anything, and he says ‘I agree, I agree,’" he told CNN's Jake Tapper Sunday morning.
This is skillful trolling. Trump understands the game Cruz is playing, so he's casting Cruz's unflinching praise and non-aggression (typically a plus in Trump's book) as a sign of weakness. Message: Look, I like the guy, but let's face it; he's an embarrassing, obsequious suck-up. Trump's dual goals here are to telegraph to his supporters that he's the only Alpha Dog in this game of patty-cake, and to sow frustration among Cruz loyalists over the fact that their guy -- a self-styled courageous fighter -- won't stick up for himself against a truculent bully. The Donald is hoping Cruz will take the bait, because the Senator's current strategy is paying off:
Cruz soars to 10-point lead over Trump in DMR Iowa poll: https://t.co/Mpt8Q7O7Ic— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) December 12, 2015
Cruz (28%) leads Trump (26%) in another Iowa poll, this one from Fox News. Rubio in 3rd, Carson now 4th. https://t.co/RQ0198IKKs— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) December 13, 2015
A new national poll from NBC/WSJ has Trump on top by five points, but with Cruz and Rubio surging. Meanwhile, Ben Carson's implosion continues, having shed nearly two-thirds of his support since late October. This is intriguing:
What happens when (new, national) NBC/WSJ poll winnows the GOP field to five: pic.twitter.com/xLkfQKOm9A— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) December 13, 2015
Let's game this out a little. For argument's sake, let's assume (a dangerous move, especially this cycle) that there's merit to the conventional wisdom that Republicans' nominating contest will eventually boil down to Trump, Cruz and Rubio. That would mean that Carson -- who's in free-fall and reportedly canceling ad buys -- exits the race, as does the floundering Jeb Bush. Where would their supporters go? My guesstimate is that among Carson's 13 percent, that group would split roughly eight for Cruz, three for Rubio and two for Trump. Jeb's nine percent would break seven for Rubio and two for Cruz. Your new score? Cruz 34, Trump 32, Rubio 31. A three-way tie, within the margin of error. (For what it's worth, a new YouGov poll shows both Cruz and Rubio beating Trump in head-to-head match-ups). Granted, this analysis relies heavily on conjecture, as well as the assumption that candidates with zero chance of winning won't linger long past their expiration dates. For instance, Jeb Bush and his allies have spent piles of money to boost his candidacy in recent months. His poll position hasn't budged above the mid-single digits nationally, and his favorability rating has dropped considerably among the voters he's seeking to persuade. Given the electorate's mood, what is Jeb's plausible path to victory at this point? And if he genuinely believes the assessment of Trump offered below, isn't his continued presence in the race hurting Rubio and Cruz -- both of whom his Super PAC is attacking -- and therefore helping Trump?
I'll leave you with a friendly reminder from political stats man Harry Enten. The polls are still garbage, gang:
I ran the #s on predictiveness of Iowa polls on Iowa outcome at this point. The predictive error 95% of time for each candidate is +/- 19%.— Harry Enten (@ForecasterEnten) December 13, 2015