Ted Cruz isn't just surging — he's winning
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Every show has an end. Just like "The Apprentice" — gripping the first few seasons, tired and contrived in the last — Donald TrumpDonald TrumpInterior Dept. reactivates Twitter accounts after shutdown Booker: 'I am not open to being president' Women's marches draw huge crowds as Trump takes office MORE's campaign is aging toward death, one reckless outburst at at time. Although the casual political junkie wouldn't know by the looks of most polls, the media fetish with The Donald and his cultish following.

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With primaries a bit less than 50 days out, at this point, previously skeptical pundits have assumed not only that Trump is the front-runner in the GOP primary, but that there is no real contest. But while cable news is capitalizing off of kabuki theater, Texas Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzTrump's America: Businessmen in, bureaucrats out When Trump says 'Make America Great Again,' he means it Booker is taking orders from corporate pharmaceuticals MORE has been backstage outplaying the entire GOP field.

In the modern ratings-based media world we live in, where candidates get attention off fundraising numbers and sensationalism, we often miss the politics brewing below the surface. Even seasoned politicos get distracted by earned media and national polls; but just as former House Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.) declared decades ago, the tried and tested formula of winning a presidential primary remains the same: It's all local.

Which is why, at this point in the campaign, we should prioritize "likely GOP voter" polls in early primary states over national and "total registered GOP voters" polls — like the Monmouth University poll out last week taken of Iowa GOP voters who have voted in previous caucuses, which shows Cruz winning at 24 percent (Trump is at 19 percent). Or, Sunday's Des Moines Register poll of likely Republican caucus-goers, which has Cruz at 31 percent and Trump 10 percentage points behind.

Recent general GOP polls (like this one and this one), where Trump is winning, factor in new Republican voters — a key portion of his support, but also those less likely to engage in the arduous Iowa caucus voting. And if those voters don't turn out, suddenly Trump drops below Cruz (in Iowa and South Carolina) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (in New Hampshire) in early primary states, making him dead on arrival to that "brokered convention" the media are fantasizing about.

All the focused polls in early primary states this week show Cruz's momentum growing, a reflection of his formulaic long-term strategy centered on fundraising, investment in ground game across the country, key endorsements and messaging to a coalition of conservative voters.

As we approach the final stretch before primaries begin, third-quarter fundraising reports indicate the health of a presidential campaign. Cruz not only out-raised all other candidates ($12.2 million), but he has assiduously maintained the most cash on hand ($13.8 million). While other big raisers (former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioGOP, Dems hear different things from Trump Senate committee to vote Monday on Tillerson Tillerson met with top State official: report MORE, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina) have spent resources on pricey ads, Cruz focused on field — perhaps saving media buys for the final days and tight race states. Cruz's investment in ground operations has paid off, as he notably has the strongest infrastructure in Iowa and South Carolina, and is far ahead of the pack in Super Tuesday primary states.

Cruz's organizing success is related to the number of conservative influencers he has wooed — from prominent conservatives like Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and influential evangelical pastors. In presidential primaries, endorsements still matter, as community leaders are surrogate advocates for the campaign — speaking to congregations and at events, making personal phone calls and rallying other leaders.

You may wonder why Cruz surged this week? A predictable phenomenon in GOP primaries is occurring: As the flavors of the month rise and fall, the candidates focused on the long game benefit. Last week, Cruz picked up evangelical support from rival candidate Ben Carson, who dropped from 32 percent to 13 percent in the past six weeks in Iowa alone. And with 65 percent of South Carolina GOP primary voters identifying as evangelical or born-again, Cruz will most likely jump ahead a couple more points in the next few weeks.

Cruz's long-term campaign strategy has focused on a coalition of conservatives, over half of the Republican primary voters: Tea Partyers, evangelical whites and far-right conservatives. His message has been part pastor-like and part renegade-like, challenging the GOP and the establishment to send a true conservative to the White House to "take on the Washington cartel." Cruz often reminds voters that he is the only GOP candidate with a record of taking on Washington — as he recently recalled what his strategist told him about his candidacy, "'America hates Washington. Washington hates you. That ain't bad.'"

But perhaps the most intriguing factor contributing to Cruz's success is Trump's overt extremism. Suddenly, Cruz — whom I admittedly once called "a flashback to Medieval Times" on "Lou Dobbs Tonight" — is the palatable conservative alternative for likely GOP voters — and even the GOP establishment. When asked about Cruz’s toxic relationship with his colleagues, a high-ranking GOP consultant told me that "the GOP establishment may hate Ted Cruz, but they fear Donald Trump."

Furthermore, Iowa is not essential for a Cruz victory, but it is essential for Trump. While Trump has surprised pundits by his Iowa ground game, getting his "new GOP voter support" out to caucus will be far more difficult than getting out the vote for Cruz's "likely GOP voters." And to gain the lead again in Iowa, Trump will have to prevent Cruz from winning over any of Carson's (or any other conservative candidate's) lagging support.

The last mile of this drawn-out early state primary campaign will be difficult for Trump. As we inch toward Iowa, he will likely make more outrageous statements to woo undecided conservatives. If Cruz remains smart, he will continue to praise Trump. In the meantime, for those worried over the demise of our Constitution under President Trump, have no fear. Ted Cruz, former clerk to late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, is here to stay. Hyper-disciplined, Cruz's multifaceted strategy — a formula of raising and saving cash, prioritizing field over media, focusing on evangelicals and anti-establishment conservatives — has solidified support across all primary states. And in coming weeks, as candidates fade, expect Trump's tirades to continue, and watch as Cruz quietly capitalizes.

Konst is a political analyst and communications strategist regularly appearing on national media outlets discussing politics. She is founder and executive director of The Accountability Project, an investigative news start-up centered on political corruption. She is also the host of The Accountability Podcast, the only podcast that solely focuses on political corruption.