How Ted Cruz plans to beat Beto O’Rourke: Play it simple

Data science, Facebook, targeted TV buys, and a laser focus on core GOP voter blocks may just win the day.

How Ted Cruz plans to beat Beto O’Rourke: Play it simple
[Photo: Getty]

If the polling is actually accurate this year, Ted Cruz is the favorite to win the surprisingly competitive Texas Senate seat over progressive challenger Beto O’Rourke on November 6. If that occurs, it will be a coup for the senator’s campaign team, given Democratic headwinds in other races across the country, and plenty of criticism for Cruz’s new closeness to President Donald Trump. He’ll have done it by using some cutting-edge data science to target core Republican voting blocks in the state with conservative messages that boil down to, “Keep Texas Red.”


For Cruz’s longtime campaign guru, that was the plan all along, given the nature of Texas politics.

“Beto would have run a fantastic campaign had he been running as a Democrat in Massachusetts,” says Chris Wilson, whose firm WPA Intelligence handles the Cruz campaign’s data science and voter targeting operation from an office a few blocks from the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

Texas is a Republican state. And it’s a Trump state. Roughly 4.7 million Texans voted for Trump in 2016, which gave him a 9% edge over Hillary Clinton. (Cruz, of course, lost in the primaries to Trump.) Still, nowhere near all those 4.7 million Trump voters will go out and vote for Cruz on November 6.


“You look at the next election, and there will be between 5.8 million and 5.9 million votes cast, as turnout is always lower in the off-years,” says Wilson, who believes that a big enough portion of the GOP base is fired up about the midterm race to deliver Cruz a victory.

“I like the direction in which this is going,” Wilson says. Not that he feels comfortable. “There’s an old saying in politics that you either run unopposed or you run scared,” Wilson says, meaning that the tides of opinion are always shifting among voters.

As of now, Cruz leads O’Rourke 51% to 45%, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll. Early voting began in the state last week, and polls say only about 2% of likely voters remain undecided.


It’s been an expensive race. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the candidates together have spent $93 million in pursuit of the Senate seat, a new record. The O’Rourke campaign has raked in a record $69 million in fundraising so far, almost half of it small-dollar (less than $200) donations (many from outside Texas). Cruz has raised more than $40 million in total, including almost $18 million from large donors and PACs. According to the CRP, outside groups like PACs have spent a collective $6.5 million to dissuade Texans from voting for O’Rourke, while such groups have spent a collective $1.6 million against Cruz.

The politics of Beto’s kneeling-for-the-anthem video

O’Rourke has enjoyed national media attention for much of the race (which has boosted his record fundraising). More than any other one thing, O’Rourke’s viral video (more than 47 million views now) about NFL players’ right to take a knee during the national anthem raised his profile nationally. The video even put O’Rourke on the short list of possible Democratic presidential candidates for 2020.


Beto O'Rourke on NFL Players Kneeling During the National Anthem

Beto O'Rourke — the man taking on Ted Cruz — brilliantly explains why NFL players kneeling during the anthem is not disrespectful

Posted by NowThis Politics on Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The video gave O’Rourke a lift in Texas, too. According to an average of polls by Real Clear Politics, O’Rourke trailed Cruz by 6.2% on August 20, just before the video went viral on August 23, and had closed the gap to 4.4% by the end of the month. O’Rourke had closed the gap to 3.2% on September 9, but that’s as close as he’s gotten to catching Cruz in the polls.

Cruz’s response to the Beto video–a video for Facebook–was telling. The ad recaps O’Rourke’s statement supporting NFL players kneeling, shows supportive tweets from some Hollywood types, then cuts to a Vietnam vet who lost both legs for the punchline: “I gave two legs for this country . . . I’m not able to stand, but I sure expect you to stand for me when the national anthem is being played.” Cruz’s video got nowhere near the play that O’Rourke’s did, but it serves as a good example of how the Cruz people are running this campaign.


Stand for the Anthem

Why do I stand? I stand for the veterans like Tim Lee who lost both his legs fighting in South Vietnam.????????????????????????SHARE if you're proud to stand, too!

Posted by Ted Cruz on Monday, August 27, 2018

The NFL kneeling debate has all sorts of emotion-laden societal issues packed into it, including race. To the left, Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the anthem may represent the primacy of freedom of speech and expression; to the right, standing may signal a respect for tradition, law and order, and the armed forces. Cruz’s video was able to hit two right-wing hot-button issues–the right’s disdain for coastal elites and media types, and respect for the flag and the military.

The Cruz campaign relies on constant polling and voter modeling to understand the biases and sensitivities of mainstream conservatives in Texas. “We’re trying to understand what makes voters tick, finding out which voters might be responsive to different types of issues,” Cruz’s communication director Catherine Frazier told me.

What the Iron Dome debate says about Texas voters

By the third week in October, the Cruz campaign knew that undecided voters had dwindled to less than 5%. A Texas publication had recently released a story about Cruz’s and O’Rourke’s views on the proposed Iron Dome over Israel to protect the country from missile attacks. Based on research, the campaign recognized the Iron Dome to be an issue that could convert some of those undecideds into committed Cruz voters.


“One of the models showed that a subset of voters would be responsive to messages about Ted Cruz supporting Israel,” Frazier told me. “We made a very simple ad highlighting the differences between the two candidates.”

Two views of the same short Cruz Facebook ad about Israel. (Source: Facebook Ad Archive)

Unwavering and unconditional support for the state of Israel is practically a requirement for winning elections in the U.S., especially among the conservatives and evangelicals who will vote for Cruz. Deviation from that norm can be found only on the far left, over with Bernie Sanders. So the Iron Dome ad was a natural for helping the Cruz campaign’s main job–painting O’Rourke as far-left and out of step with Texas.

“It’s about pointing out the policies he supports,” she says. “He supports policies that would make Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren happy–they’re radically divergent from most people’s views in this state.”


Actually, O’Rourke voted yes on a budget that sent an additional $351 million into Iron Dome in October 2014, but he was one of only eight House members to vote against spending another $225 million on the anti-missile system without debate in July 2014 after fighting broke out between Israel and Hamas. Some in Congress thought Israel still had unspent funds available from the earlier appropriation.

“Targeting is so much better on Facebook that it used to be”

The Facebook political ads that so troubled the 2016 presidential elections are being used even more widely in the midterm congressional elections. The Cruz campaign relies on Facebook heavily to get its messaging out. “Targeting is so much better on Facebook than it used to be,” Cruz’s digital director Josh Perry told me.

“We use Twitter mainly to reach journalists,” Perry says. “If we feel like the media narrative starts getting carried away, we will just put it on Facebook, where we can reach [the base] directly.”


In terms of the campaign’s total ad spend, Perry says the Cruz campaign spends as much or a little more on Google Search ads as on Facebook ads.

The Cruz campaign has spent $520,030 on 344 Facebook ads between May 2018 and the present, according to the Facebook Ad Archive.

Representative samples of Ted Cruz’s Facebook ads. (Source: Facebook Ad Archive)

The archive has copies of the Cruz ads going back to July. Other than the basic fundraising and campaign event ads, I counted six ads about liberal outsiders trying to take over Texas (via O’Rourke), six ads asking whether Silicon Valley is censoring conservatives, six ads about Cruz defending the border with Mexico, four ads about Cruz abolishing the IRS, and two ads about Beto not supporting Israel.


There are many more Beto for Texas ads to view in the archive than Cruz ones. The Beto for Texas campaign is the biggest-spending political cause on Facebook, period. The campaign spent $6.3 million on 7,504 ads since last May, more than 10 times what the Cruz campaign spent, according to Facebook.

Representative samples of Beto O’Rourke’s Facebook ads. (Source: Facebook Ad Archive)

O’Rourke’s ads, in general, are more issue-focused and less negative than Cruz’s. A look at the ads from the past month shows the normal fundraising and event fare, but also many ads about such things as funding Medicare, increasing the minimum wage, affordable care, education, and fixing immigration. Many of the Cruz ads contain images and words that are critical of O’Rourke. O’Rourke’s ads contain few pictures of Cruz, although some point out Cruz’s opposing viewpoints on specific issues. And one ad criticizes Cruz for missing half of all Senate votes in 2016 when Cruz was running for president.

The O’Rourke campaign has spent 12% more on TV advertising than the Cruz campaign, according to numbers from Matrix Solutions. O’Rourke has bought $5.3 million in local broadcast ads, while the Cruz campaign has spent $4.1 million.


For most of the campaign, the Cruz camp used TV ads sparingly, and in a very targeted way. It ran an ad about Texas’s booming energy economy in and around Austin, which is a liberal college town that gets more moderate in the suburbs.

“That’s one that was very successful for us,” she says. “We also ran an ad about Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area.” That ad features Ted Cruz on the ground helping rescue victims from the flooding.

Cruz has begun running ads across TV markets in Texas during the final few weeks of the campaign.


The tent is big enough

The Cruz campaign’s main strategy isn’t widening the tent for new types of voters. Some have observed that neither campaign has put much effort into attracting Hispanic or independent voters in the state. (It’s worth mentioning, however, that an October 26 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll shows 51% of independents breaking for O’Rourke, and only 39% for Cruz.)

Its main job is connecting with and motivating the core, right-wing, GOP voter blocks (many of whom have cast votes for Cruz in the past) to get out and vote on November 6.

That “motivating” part was what Perry was worried about when I talked to him in mid-October. He said GOP voters rallied around the cause of getting Brett Kavanaugh confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but that the campaign faced a challenge getting that excitement to carry through to Election Day. “We’ve got to keep them tuned in to the race and keep them fired up to vote,” Perry said.


Wilson told me social media data can be useful in modeling for those voters. “We use social data to ID voter groups in our core universes,” Wilson told me. The Cruz campaign isn’t doing anything quite so exotic as Cambridge Analytica’s “psychographic” modeling, but it is using social data for specific things. “We use it to turn out target voters in heavily contested areas,” Wilson said.

“A lot of those are 2016 voters who we know are persuaded by specific messages,” Wilson said. Wilson’s firm handled the data science operation behind Cruz’s 2016 bid for the presidency, too.

O’Rourke’s problem in the Texas Senate race is that there are simply more conservative voters who are likely to vote in a midterm election than there are progressive ones. O’Rourke’s task, then, is to find a lot of Democrats who wouldn’t normally bother to get to a polling place on November 6. The main underrepresented group in the midterms, and the ones most likely to hold progressive points of view, are young people. That’s why O’Rourke recently did a speaking tour of college campuses–to try to find and push more young and progressive voters into the calculus that will define the winner of the Senate seat.

That’s a hard task. The young live complicated lives, and organized politics can seem to them like a remote world. The polls show that the O’Rourke campaign never got as close to catching up with Cruz as it did in mid-September. And for weeks, the narrative has been that the Beto for Texas campaign fought a good fight but came up short. Any change to that story would be a surprise.

But, as progressives have learned, painfully, surprises do happen in November.


About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.