In a matter of a few short weeks, Ted Cruz will become a household name. Which may — or may not — turn out to be good news for him.
My bet is that if I stood on a street corner today anywhere other than in Iowa or New Hampshire, 9 out of 10 passersby would not be able to pick Ted Cruz out of a lineup, much less tell you anything about him. It would be like showing me pictures of the guy who's going to win the Heisman Trophy.
But that's about to change. Cruz may or may not be the most popular Republican in Iowa, but unless all the pollsters and talkers are wrong (which, admittedly, does happen), he should win. And winning Iowa gets you the spotlight, particularly when the story on the other side is the predictable victory of the frontrunner.
It is certainly possible that there is a groundswell of support for Donald Trump that is not being measured by conventional polls and not being seen by conventional talkers. After all, who (other than Trump himself) would have thought Trump would still be in the lead nationally in January? But as every talker keeps telling anyone who will listen, national polls often don't correctly predict Iowa, nor should they. We used to explain this to campaign newcomers with a story about the difference between the contributions of the chicken and the pig to a ham-and-eggs breakfast: The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.
You have to be committed to vote in Iowa. You can't just show up for five minutes anytime in a 12-hour window — which is more than most people are willing to do in primaries, anyway. You have to know where to go on a freezing-cold night (why couldn't Florida or Hawaii go first, we used to ask ourselves), and then you have to sit there in the school auditorium as everybody makes speeches about who they are for; and then you "vote" by standing in a corner of the room; and you're still not done!
If one or more candidates have some supporters but not enough to earn them a delegate to the county convention, voters reshuffle as the field narrows.
Some caucuses tend to be quick and efficient; some go for hours. Trump may have big rallies, but Cruz has been working Iowa for over a year and reportedly has the best "ground game" in the state. That means he has organizers who have identified his supporters and will get them to the caucus. Cruz has deep support among conservative Christians, who will likely have a nice church supper followed by a ride in a warm bus over to the caucus.
Which means that the next morning, the rest of us will wake up to find Ted Cruz everywhere. It used to be just the cover of Time and a slot on "The Today Show"; these days, social media is all-engulfing, assaulting you whether you want it or not, and Ted Cruz is a candidate made for social media, for better and for worse.
What will we learn about Ted Cruz on the morning after Iowa? If my morning cruise of Ted Cruz stories is any indication, there will a whole lot of mud flying. Was Ted Cruz really born in Canada? Actually, he was. Is that a problem? Are there any "birthers" out there still disputing whether Obama was born in Hawaii (which is, after all, America)? Was Cruz really one of the only senators to vote against the Violence Against Women Act? Did he really limit his study group at Harvard Law School to Ivy League graduates? Is he really the most hated man in the Senate? Why?
There are very few experiences that compare with undergoing the white-hot spotlight afforded to previously unknown candidates who suddenly might be president. This is especially true for candidates like Cruz, who don't have many fans in the media to begin with. Fasten your seat belts. The turbulence is coming.
(Susan Estrich is a professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California Law Center. A best-selling author, lawyer and politician, as well as a teacher, she first gained national prominence as national campaign manager for Dukakis for President in 1988.)