What’s behind the Ted Cruz surge?

Recent polls show Sen. Ted Cruz gaining ground in the Republican presidential race, while Ben Carson is slipping. Gwen Ifill speaks to Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and Tamara Keith of NPR about Cruz’s surge and what to watch for in the upcoming GOP debate Tuesday night.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    And now, for more on where the race stands, including some surprising new poll numbers, we turn to our regular Monday night duo, Tamara Keith of NPR, and Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report.

    Welcome back.

  • AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report:

    Thank you.

  • TAMARA KEITH, NPR:

    Thank you.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let's talk — get right to these numbers, very interesting, over the weekend.

    We saw a Des Moines Register poll, the Iowa Republican poll, the gold standard. And in it, we have Cruz at 31 percent, up 21 percent from the last poll in October, where he was only at 10. Trump is at 21 percent, essentially the same where he was before.

    That is a big deal. But right after that, today, we saw a new Quinnipiac Iowa poll, in which it's — basically, it's a tied race. Trump is at 28 percent. He's up 3 percent from 25 percent last time they went in the field, and Ted Cruz is at 27 percent, up 4 percent, so they're like neck and neck, 28-27 percent, well within anybody's margin of error.

    What's happening? What is this Cruz surge?

  • AMY WALTER:

    Cruz has benefited from a couple of things. The first is, the decline of Ben Carson. That wasn't on the poll chart, but what you would see is Ben Carson really plummeting in the polls.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    He went from 28 percent to 13 percent in that Des Moines poll.

  • AMY WALTER:

    Yes, in that Des Moines Register poll. And you saw a drop-off too in the Quinnipiac poll. So, he has dropped off. And that has benefited Ted Cruz most significantly.

    But the other thing that Cruz has been able to do is, he's put the three most important legs of the stool together for Iowa. He has got evangelicals, very conservative voters. Of course, I'm going to forget the third one.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • AMY WALTER:

    As I remembered that — the evangelicals and people who are Tea Party supporters.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    OK.

  • AMY WALTER:

    OK. See, I need to go to my notes, but I knew there were three.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Yes.

  • AMY WALTER:

    So, he's getting strong support from all three of those groups. Those are the groups that determine who the winner of Iowa will be.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Does he also do well among people who hate Washington? He came to Washington, but then immediately went to war against Washington. He calls it the cartel.

  • TAMARA KEITH:

    Yes, he came to Washington, joined the Senate, and proceeded to help government — shut the government down.

    I mean, he led the government shutdown. And then, interestingly — and thinking about Ted Cruz reminded me of this — less than a month after the government shutdown ended, he went to Iowa, and he gave a big speech at the Iowa Republican Party statewide dinner. And he has been building the groundwork in Iowa since before the government shutdown.

    He came to Washington to raise his profile, and he did with things like the government shutdown, and then he goes to Iowa years before an election, and has people text in to join Ted Cruz's army. And he has a huge infrastructure. He has a huge ground game, especially in Iowa, but also in Southern states, which will be key after Iowa.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now, one interesting detail, last week, before this latest round of polling came out, Donald Trump immediately started trashing the poll, in advance, possibly anticipating on — I don't know whether he's doing his own polling — that things were not going as well.

    And so what we were all holding our breath, thinking, what will Trump say about Cruz, who has taken pains not to publicly criticize Donald Trump? What will Trump say?

    And, then very quickly yesterday, I believe it was on "FOX News Sunday" — let's take a listen — this is what he had to say.

  • DONALD TRUMP:

    You look at the way he's dealt with the Senate, where he goes in there like a — frankly, like a little bit of a maniac. You're never going to get things done that way.

    Look, I built a phenomenal business. I'm worth many, many billions of dollars. I have some of the greatest assets anywhere in the world. You can't walk into the Senate and scream and call people liars, and not be able to cajole and get along with people. He will never get anything done. And that's the problem with Ted.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But Donald Trump…

  • AMY WALTER:

    It's kind of ironic, isn't it?

  • GWEN IFILL:

    That is something interesting.

  • AMY WALTER:

    Right.

    That is the argument against Ted Cruz, is that he led the fight to shut the government down, that he leads a lot of fights, but he doesn't have a lot of victories. And yet, coming from…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Or friends.

  • AMY WALTER:

    Or friends.

    And yet coming somebody who is more than happy to take on the establishment and tell them where to stick it, I don't know that this is the guy that's going to be able to unite America either.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Donald Trump has been an interesting character in all of this. He has been the naysayer, and it feels like, right behind him, Ted Cruz has been waiting to take that mantle away.

  • TAMARA KEITH:

    Yes.

    The New York Times had a very interesting piece of audio of Ted Cruz at a closed door fund-raiser, saying that he was going to hug Donald Trump and Ben Carson until they — you know, until gravity took hold of their campaigns, which he fully anticipated gravity will take hold, and then he will be there, just waiting to scoop up all that support.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Then, in that same — in that same appearance, he raised questions about their judgment.

  • TAMARA KEITH:

    Absolutely — well, because he was behind closed doors, so he didn't have to hug quite so tightly.

  • AMY WALTER:

    Right.

  • TAMARA KEITH:

    Then, of course, the audio got out. And that is in part what prompted Donald Trump to really pick a fight and start the tweet storm, which Ted Cruz was like, I'm not taking the bait.

  • AMY WALTER:

    Right.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Tomorrow night, another — another — yet another in a series of weeknights spent watching debates for the three of us. So, we're going to — they're all gathering in Las Vegas. What do they have to do?

    There are a lot of people we didn't mention in these polls who are having — who are struggling as well.

  • AMY WALTER:

    I don't think that this debate is going to change the trajectory of this race. I think we have seen the race now basically come down to three, maybe four people. And it's Donald Trump and it's Ted Cruz and it's Marco Rubio.

    The one person who I think is sort of on the bubble right now is Chris Christie, who is doing better in New Hampshire. And I think this environment that we're in right now, one where terrorism and security is the top of the mind for voters, especially Republican voters, that plays well to Christie's strengths.

    And I think he will be making that case a lot tomorrow night, and making that distinction between himself, governor in New Jersey, been around during terrorism strikes, I know how to deal with this, these other guys don't know what they're doing.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    How does Marco Rubio distinguish himself in that kind of field?

  • TAMARA KEITH:

    I think that there is more pressure on Marco Rubio heading into this debate than there have been in past debates.

    He's continually had a strong debate performance, but now people are sort of expecting him to have a strong debate performance. And so I think a lot of people will be watching him for that performance. The question, though, is, he has these good debate performances, and then there is this buzz, and then he maybe moves up a couple points. He doesn't have the big surge that Ted Cruz has.

  • AMY WALTER:

    In part, that is because Ted Cruz is competing on the anti-establishment, Tea Party, evangelical side, and Marco Rubio is competing on the other side of the Republican Party, the establishment side, which is a very crowded neighborhood right now. And I think, ultimately, the winner is going to be the person, like Ted Cruz, who is an establishment candidate, but puts themselves as anti-establishment.

    Ted Cruz is a member of the United States Senate, has been part of the Bush administration in his past, but now is running against…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    I'm going to be watching Ben Carson to see if he can break out, or anybody else on the fringes. It's going to be — I think it's going to be very interesting.

  • AMY WALTER:

    It will be interesting, I don't doubt.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Call me.

    Amy Walter, Tamara Keith, thank you both very much.

  • TAMARA KEITH:

    You're welcome.

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