The One Reason Iowa Is Make-Or-Break For Ted Cruz

The Iowa caucuses are just days away, and Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are the two clear front-runners in the state. But over the past few weeks, Trump has gained a very slight upper hand over the junior senator from Texas, and his lead appears likely to hold by the time Iowans head to the polls on Monday. Cruz is in a tough spot: He might not win the nomination if he does win Iowa — but it's very difficult to see him getting the nomination if he doesn't win Iowa. In other words, Iowa is make-or-break for Ted Cruz. Here's why.

First of all — and this can't be stated enough — Iowa isn't actually all that important in determining the nominee from a mathematical standpoint. Nominations are determined by delegates, and despite its coveted first-in-the-nation status, Iowa isn't worth very many delegates (and neither is New Hampshire, for that matter). In addition, the winner of Iowa hasn't, historically, been a terribly great predictor of who ultimately goes on to win the nomination. In short, Iowa's significance in the primary process is vastly overstated.

But it's not entirely irrelevant, because the winner of the Iowa caucuses does get candidates at least one very big reward: a metric ton of media coverage. That coverage, in turn, gives candidates more visibility to undecided voters in other states, which can lead to a fundraising boost. More money means candidates can spend more time campaigning, which can further grow their support, and thus the cycle repeats itself. This is what happened to Rick Santorum in 2012. After floundering for the vast majority of the primary, he pulled off an upset in Iowa at the eleventh hour, and that win propelled him to victories in a slew of other states later in the process.

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So, back to Ted Cruz. As of this writing, there are only three states in which he's either leading or within a couple percentage points of whoever is leading: Iowa, Texas, and California. But the Texas primary isn't until March 1, and California doesn't vote until June. Between Iowa and Texas, three states — South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Nevada — will cast their votes. Cruz is trailing badly in all three of them.

In short, Iowa is Cruz's last chance for a while to build any sort of momentum. Sure, he'll almost certainly lose the next couple of states, but if he wins in Iowa, he'll enjoy loads of press coverage and will have a handy new talking point to bust out on the campaign trail ("They said we couldn't do it, but look what we did in Iowa!" etc). If he's lucky, he'll be able to ride this wave through February and into the Texas primaries in March. As a popular Texan politician, he'll almost certainly win his home state.

But a loss in Iowa would be a huge setback for Cruz. If current trends in the polls hold — and they may not, of course — a Cruz defeat in Iowa will inadvertently result in three consecutive victories for Donald Trump: Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. That kind of momentum is very difficult to break: The media will start talking about Trump's "inevitability," Cruz donors will begin to jump ship, and it will be extremely hard for any of the other Republicans to build and grow their support.

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In this scenario, Cruz would still probably go on to win Texas. However, the press would likely chalk that up not to Cruz-mentum, but to Cruz being from the state. This happened to Newt Gingrich in 2012 when, having long lost any legitimate shot at the Republican nomination, he nonetheless won his home state of Georgia. He then lost every other primary and dropped out of the race.

This is all highly speculative, obviously, and any number of developments could change the contours of the race between now and then. But if Cruz can't win Iowa, he's going to have much harder time convincing either voters or donors of his viability as a candidate. In such a close race, that's not a hit his campaign can afford to take.