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Ahead of the Caucus, Some Question Cruz Campaign's 99-County Strategy

Sen. Ted Cruz at an event in Sioux City, Iowa, on January 29, 2016.
Bob Daemmrich for KUT News
Sen. Ted Cruz at an event in Sioux City, Iowa, on January 29, 2016.

As he pursues the GOP presidential nomination, a key part of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s Iowa strategy has been to visit all 99 counties in that state — a strategy called " the full Grassley,” named after an Iowa U.S. Senator who visits each county every year. 

But, some have criticized the Cruz campaign for spending more time last week in rural parts of the state in an effort to hit every county, instead of going to the Hawkeye State’s population centers.

Four years ago, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum made the run and ended up narrowly defeating eventual nominee former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Cruz made hitting all 99 counties a priority early in his campaign. Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University and co-author of the book "The Iowa Precinct Caucuses," says to understand why Cruz believes that’s important, we have to understand his overall election strategy.

"His fundamental premise is that there are all sorts of missing conservative, evangelical voters that have not voted in the past couple of presidential elections, because there has not been a sufficiently conservative if not Christian conservative candidate," Goldford says. "He claims to be that person.”

To get those voters back to the caucuses, he needs to go find them in every county. Cruz has been pushing his plan to hit all 99 counties this past week. When his top competitor, Donald Trump, dropped out of Thursday's GOP debate, Cruz started calling his visits an example of a candidate respecting Iowa voters.

“Standing in front of the men and women of Iowa and asking for your support, looking you in the eyes and answering the hard questions," Cruz told a crowd of about 300 people in Des Moines last week. "That’s what any candidate who hopes to win the state of Iowa owes the men and women of this state.”

Des Moines is a large population center, so it’s not like the Cruz campaign has ignored that part of the state while completing his 99-county run. But, Goldford says, outside the big cities, candidates need to get their supporters to bring others to the caucuses. 

“Media doesn’t do it at that particular point in the campaign," he says. "It’s friends and neighbors — people you know who say, 'Come on, we’re going to  ride together. We’re going to go caucus.' So, the extent to which somebody like Ted Cruz can go even to these smaller towns outside of major city media areas, is an attempt again to motivate that organization, to get these people to turn out.”

The Cruz campaign said over the weekend it hoped turnout would be up across the state. Just not up too much. Conventional wisdom is that a large jump in turnout at the GOP caucuses could help Donald Trump take the state.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Ben Philpott covers politics and policy for KUT 90.5 FM. He has been covering state politics and dozens of other topics for the station since 2002. He's been recognized for outstanding radio journalism by the Radio and Television News Directors Association, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated, the Texas Associated Press Broadcasters and twice by the Houston Press Club as Radio Journalist of the Year. Before moving to Texas, he worked in public radio in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Ala., and at several television stations in Alabama and Tennessee. Born in New York City and raised in Chattanooga, Tenn., Philpott graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in broadcast journalism.