Whether here in Iowa or elsewhere in America there’s been plenty of haterade dumped on Ted Cruz of late. John McCain once dubbed the Texas Senator a “wacko bird,” while Bob Dole recently called him an “extremist” and former president George W. Bush told supporters he “just doesn’t like the guy.”
But while even those in his own party gripe about his demeanor, Cruz’s favorability rating remains strong and only trails the affable Ben Carson among right-wingers and Republicans. To find out exactly what people on the campaign trail thought of the polarizing presidential candidate, I followed Cruz for more than 12 hours — along seven consecutive stops — to try to find out: Is this guy likable?
I’ve just jumped from a hay bale to the upper rung of a bleacher seat — it’s the only way I can see Cruz, surrounded by fans, cameras and boom mics. Now I’m looking down, and the Texan with slicked-back hair, a rugged outdoorsman’s jacket and hiking shoes is talking about ponies. “What’s your favorite My Little Pony?” Cruz asks his tiny supporter, a little girl who is wearing a Rainbow Dash beanie. ”Twilight,” she says. “I have two daughters, and they love Twilight,” Cruz says, before adding, with a grin: “My favorite, though, is Applejack. I just think she’s funny.”
These intimate encounters are Cruz’s biggest — and riskiest — bet in his plan to win Iowa. While Cruz speaks to dozens in this unheated barn, his chief rival, Donald Trump, is filling concert halls with thousands. But these face-to-face chats traditionally have won over Iowans, rather than TV appearances or megachurch rallies where some people from the big crowds may be drawn to Trump by spectacle rather than support. “The Iowa caucuses,” Cruz says, “will be won friend to friend, neighbor to neighbor.” After a 40-minute speech, he shakes hands with just about everyone. “If people say he’s not personable, it says more about Washington than it does him,” a local pastor, Josh Verwers, tells me.
Every campaign hero needs a sidekick stumper, and today Rick Perry is a Cruzer. From stop to stop, the former Texas governor and presidential hopeful, who dropped out in September, is raving about Cruz, sometimes noting how he’s “full of humility” or “one of the great listeners that I’ve ever been around.”
Sure, that’s not how most people would describe Cruz. The controversial senator is better known for brash talk, which in a 21-hour speech in 2013 turned him into a star when he compared media pundits who let Obamacare happen to those who appeased Nazi Germany. And, more recently, he’s advocated tactics against ISIS that could put Syrian civilians at risk too, noting how he’d “carpet bomb” the bad guys while adding that he didn’t know if sand could glow in the dark “but we’re going to find out.”
Few out here are seeing that side of him, as he’s now dressed down to a blue sweater with his jeans. His tone is quiet, even humble, as he starts each speech thanking supporters. Still, those signature quips slip out here and there, including one of Cruz’s favorite lines about the word politics and how the first part, “poli-,” means many. “And ‘-tics,’ meaning bloodsucking parasites,” he says. “And that’s a fairly accurate representation of Washington, D.C.”
I admire Cruz’s principles. But can he be diplomatic?
Pastor J.D. Boatman
I stop to ask Tim Overlin, one of the volunteers at a ’50s-style bar where around 200 people have gathered to see Cruz, if it matters if he isn’t well liked by his colleagues. “All that shows me is that he’s got all the right enemies,” says the Gen-Xer. He then recounts a moment when an older lady asked Cruz to pray with her at a gun range in Johnston, Iowa. It’s a heartwarming story, though it was also the place where Overlin recalls somebody taking a picture of a gun pointed at Cruz’s head.
We’ve moved on to one of those old, single-room churches that dot America’s heartland and always seem to be painted white. In the crowd of 50 or so, a white-haired pastor named J.D. Boatman stands up to ask: “With Congress so polarized, how are you going to get your ideas through, especially given the fact that, evidently, you’re not the most-liked person in the world?”
The crowd laughs. Conservative icon Ronald Reagan wasn’t popular either, Cruz notes, particularly because he ran against a sitting Republican president in 1976 (before winning the presidency in 1980). “You think Republican leadership doesn’t like me?” asks Cruz. “They hated Reagan with a thousand white-hot suns.”
But Boatman isn’t sold on Cruz’s response. “Reagan was so winsome … he had his position, but he was gentle about it,” Boatman tells me privately. “I admire Cruz’s principles. But can he be diplomatic?”
In the parking lot, I spot a giant RV that’s had cornstalks and the message “Caucusing for Cruz Is Caucusing Against Iowa Farmers” airbrushed onto its side. Experts say a bigger concern for Cruz than his popularity is the fact that he wants to abolish the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal mandate that requires fuel made from corn, among other products, to be mixed into the nation’s gasoline supply. Gov. Terry Branstad, who typically doesn’t make endorsements, told reporters that based on Cruz’s stance on ethanol, the corn-based fuel, it would be “a mistake” for Iowans to support him.
Before a crowd of a couple of hundred in Ottumwa, third-generation corn farmer James Hornick asks Cruz to explain his position, and Cruz doesn’t balk: “I don’t believe Washington should pick winners and losers,” he says. “There should be no mandates or subsidies, for any energy source, while on a level playing field.” And as he argues that corn production would actually do better under his plan, the crowd claps. Again. And again. Later, Hornick tells me, “I heard exactly what I needed to hear; I’ll take my chance on the free market.”
Now things are getting interesting. After about nine hours on the trail today, Cruz gets onstage and switches up his stump speech: He has just challenged the Donald to a one-on-one debate. It’s a gutsy but bold move, given Cruz’s strength at debates. And for county tax commissioner Harry Graves, who drove two hours from Marion County, Missouri, to see Cruz speak, “It doesn’t matter to me whether Cruz is likable. Maybe he’s being intolerant of ineffective idiots.”
The sun has set and the son of a preacher is in full form, his voice rising and rife with inflection. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse is in the crowd tonight here in Keosauqua, and Cruz talks some smack about the Texas-Nebraska football rivalry before gabbing about his favorite Ronald Reagan interview. “What we need to do is speak the truth and do so with a smile,” Cruz says while, yes, smiling.
For Sasse, the personality question is moot: “This isn’t a student council race,” he tells OZY. But if it were, Cruz isn’t doing a bad job among some voters. Chiropractor Troy Scheuermann, for one, recalls meeting Cruz at a conference in 2013, soon after the freshman senator was elected. It was only a five-minute encounter, but about a year later, as Scheuermann recalls it, “He saw me, and he said, ‘Hi, doctor.’ He remembered that.”
It’s the last stop, and, while he was never made available through his staff for an interview, Cruz has just announced a website created by his team: DuckingDonald.com. Some voters certainly find this side of Cruz enjoyable, and it seems as though he knows it. “By the way,” Cruz says, pausing for that perfect delivery, “you have to have fun in a campaign.”