The emerging consensus among the political cognoscenti is that Donald Trump won Tuesday night’s Republican debate in Las Vegas because nobody had the nerve to attack him, except for Jeb Bush—who, Trump accurately pointed out, is languishing in single digits and poses no threat to anyone. At Vox, Matthew Yglesias declared Trump the winner, marveling that “his main rivals for the nomination didn't even try to stop him.” His colleague Ezra Klein agreed, pointing out that “the GOP candidates have become genuinely afraid of attacking Trump.” Leon Wolf at RedState was apoplectic that “people who realize that Trump represents an existential threat to the credibility and future existence of the conservative movement as a political force have been forced to grind our teeth as Cruz … held fire on this charlatan for months.”
Pundits on the left and the right are captive to a mindset that says the only way to beat Trump is to attack him. But that isn’t the only way. According to the latest Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa poll, Cruz’s alternative strategy of ostentatiously flattering Trump is working wonders for him. Not only does “Nice Guy” Cruz lead Trump by 10 points, but he’s managed to ingratiate himself to Trump’s followers (whom he stands to inherit) while crafting an image with Republican caucus-goers that’s completely at odds with his image in Washington as a narcissistic bomb-thrower who constantly undermines his party's agenda in Congress. Trump appears to be so oblivious to this strategy that he actually helped Cruz to advance it Tuesday night.
While commentators fixated on Trump tend to focus on national polls, they’re essentially meaningless right now and will shift once Iowans caucus. As I pointed out before, Cruz is not only leading in Iowa, but he’s primed to steal Trump’s supporters, who could become disillusioned if Trump stumbles or suffers a humiliating defeat. As the crosstabs of our poll revealed, an overwhelming number of Trump supporters like Cruz: 73 percent of those who pick Trump as their first choice rate the Texas senator favorably.
Cruz is also far and away their preferred alternative to Trump, with 49 percent identifying him as their second choice. That's far ahead than the next candidate on Trump supporters' list: Rubio, with 16 percent.
Perhaps the poll’s most stunning finding — and if you’re a Republican congressional staffer, I’d urge you to sit down or put on a helmet so you don’t fall over and get hurt — is that the amiable Cruz who Republicans have encountered on the campaign trail and the debate stage has persuaded them that he is temperamentally better suited than three of his other rivals to work effectively with Congress and enact a conservative agenda. Cruz's 31 percent rating on this category is higher than that of his fellow freshman senator, Marco Rubio (29 percent), or the mild-mannered Ben Carson (18 percent), or Trump (12 percent).
In other words, Cruz is viewed as a nicer, more capable Trump — nearly three times more consider him the most capable of the four, when it comes to Congress — a view Trump can only have amplified by his actions in Tuesday’s debate. Cruz won the moment he dissuaded Trump from attacking him for talking smack in a private donor meeting. Remarkably, Cruz managed to elicit gushing praise from Trump about what a swell guy he is and even got Trump to withdraw the charge he’d issued a few days earlier that Cruz was “a maniac.” “Let me just say that I have gotten to know him over the last three or four days,” Trump explained during the debate. “He has a wonderful temperament. He’s just fine.” Cruz couldn’t have gotten a more helpful performance from Trump if he’d had him on marionette strings.
Trump, as we all know, is obsessed with his poll numbers. But his bluster tends to mask a pair of analytic flaws. He disparages and ignores polls that displease him (like ours) and he tends to fixate on national polls, even though there is no national primary and those numbers will shift once voting starts:
But Trump won’t be able to ignore an Iowa loss, particularly not a bad one. At least some of his supporters will lose faith and desert him. As they look around for another candidate to support, one will have practically the same policy profile, the same anti-establishment bona fides, the same discombobulating effect on the media, and even the Trump “Seal of Approval.” And if Cruz wins Iowa, he’ll hold even more appeal, because if there’s one thing Trump voters long for it’s a winner.
The quickest way to ruin this plan would be for Cruz to attack Trump, as everyone is urging. But of course Cruz knows this and doesn’t do it. He’s playing Trump for a sucker — and most members of the media, too.