Donald Trump has been needling his main rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Ted Cruz, about his Canadian origins, suggesting this disqualifies him from the presidency. Many legal scholars disagree (though not all of them do). But the “birther” attack clearly bothers Cruz, and now he’s striking back.
“It is more than a little strange to see Donald relying on as authoritative a liberal, left-wing, judicial activist Harvard law professor who is a huge Hillary supporter,” he said in New Hampshire Tuesday, apparently referencing Harvard Law professor (and Democrat) Laurence Tribe. “It starts to make you think, ‘Gosh, why are some of Hillary’s strongest supporters backing Donald Trump?’”
Why has Cruz switched from lavishly praising Trump to attacking him? It may be because the birther charge is having an effect on the ground in Iowa.
In the latest Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll of likely Republican caucus-goers, which shows Cruz narrowly leading Trump, 15 percent of respondents say they are “bothered” that Cruz was born in Canada.
“Fifteen percent in Iowa, when you have this many candidates, if that’s part of what’s taking people to Trump, it’s not nothing,” said J. Ann Selzer of Selzer & Co., which conducted the poll of 500 likely Republican caucus-goers from Jan. 7-10. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
Concerns over Cruz’s Canadian birthplace are especially strong among Trump supporters, 32 percent of whom report being bothered by it. “This is primarily the Trump-Cruz battleground [in Iowa],” says Selzer, “and the people it bothers are Trump people more than anybody else.”
Cruz’s support has fallen by 6 points since the last Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll a month ago, while Trump’s has risen by 1 point. But it’s impossible to measure whether Trump’s birther charge eroded Cruz’s support because respondents weren’t asked about it in the last poll—it wasn’t an issue until Trump made it one. “You can’t know for sure that it’s a factor,” says Selzer. “But you can’t rule it out either.”
At the very least, the question Trump has raised could make it harder for Cruz to lure away Trump’s supporters.
An additional factor is that other candidates are now picking up Trump's line of attack. On Wednesday, Mike Huckabee told Bloomberg Politics' Michael C. Bender that the issue “should give everybody a little concern.” And Rick Santorum said the issue of Cruz's birth “is not settled law.” In a race Cruz narrowly leads 25 percent to 22 percent over Trump, caucus-goers troubled by the front-runner’s Canadian birthplace could wind up making a difference.