When Ted Cruz took the stage at his primary night party in Hollis, N.H., he gave what sounded like a victory speech. And in some ways, he may have been an overlooked winner of the night.
"Washington insiders were convinced our wave of support would break in the Granite State," the Texas senator thundered. "The men and women of New Hampshire proved them wrong."
The TVs flanking him showed the results; he was edging out former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Cruz finished with just under 12 percent, good enough in the crowded field for third place.
All the attention out of New Hampshire has centered on Donald Trump, who won a resounding victory; John Kasich, who finished a surprise second; Jeb Bush, who did enough to stay in the race; Marco Rubio, who finished a disappointing fifth after a poor debate performance; and even Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina, who made headlines for dropping out of the presidential race.
But lost in the shuffle seems to be Cruz, the man who won Iowa and finished third in New Hampshire — despite it not being a state that lines up well with him demographically. It's less socially conservative, less religious and more in favor of the GOP establishment than Iowa. Because of Cruz's strength, though, with those core GOP groups and a favorable primary calendar chock full of Southern states over the next few weeks, Cruz could still have a big impact. That's especially true if he can get enough mainstream Republicans on his side, the way he did in New Hampshire.
Cruz's investment in New Hampshire was minimal compared to other establishment candidates. Bush's campaign and a superPAC supporting him combined to spend $36 million in the Granite State, according to the National Review. Other candidates and groups supporting them spent millions, too. For Christie, who finished a disappointing sixth, it added up to $18.5 million; for Rubio, $15.2 million; and Kasich, $12.1 million.
But Cruz and his supporters' total investment? A mere $580,000. That comes to just $11 per vote. By comparison, Bush spent more than $1,000 per vote, as NPR's Peter Overby reports.
More importantly, Cruz seemed to break the curse of the Iowa winner. Typically, the victor in the conservative, heavily evangelical state doesn't have much appeal in the more moderate, more secular New Hampshire. In 2012, for example, after winning in Iowa, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum finished a distant fourth in the Granite State even though he spent a lot of time campaigning there — and that was in a smaller and less competitive field.
By besting the other, more establishment candidates, all of whom needed a strong finish here, Cruz sent the message he had been arguing on the campaign trail the past few days — don't pigeonhole me as just the "evangelical candidate."
"I feel terrific, and I am encouraged," Cruz said Tuesday afternoon, as he headed into the iconic Red Arrow Diner in downtown Manchester, N.H., to see if he could sway a few more votes his way. "If conservatives show up, we're going to have a very good day today. If libertarians show up and vote today, if Tea Party activists show up and vote today, if Reagan Democrats show up and vote today, if young people show up and vote today, we're going to have a really good day."
That seemed to come true for him on Tuesday night. As supporters gathered in the ballroom, adorned with tables and placards that said "Cruzin' to Victory," the message from many huddled around TVs, glued to CNN's returns, was that they just needed to medal.
"We know we need at least a top-three finish today," said one Cruz volunteer who had come from New York to campaign. "We're looking for it. We know we won in Iowa. Now we're heading to South Carolina to do work down there."
Nancy Kindler of Epping is a member of Cruz's New Hampshire leadership team. She whooped and hollered as each vote was added to his total on TV and his lead grew over Bush.
"He only wanted to make a good showing, and he's doing great. We're so proud of him, honest to God. What a campaign!" she gushed before the results were official. "Even if he comes in three, we're happy. That's great!"
Former New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith, one of Cruz's top surrogates on the trail in recent days, told NPR at the end of the night that the Texas senator should definitely be considered one of the winners on Tuesday night.
"The expectations were low, for whatever reasons I don't know," Smith said. "He ran a strong campaign. This is a tough state for conservatives. He proved that wrong."
Another factor: while Cruz's focus remained primarily on Iowa, he didn't completely ignore the Granite State, either. Just weeks before Iowa, he made a 17-stop bus tour across the state, targeting many rural areas where more conservative voters could be swayed.
"Almost every candidate who wins Iowa comes here and doesn't do well," Smith said. "He's broken that mold."
The former senator attributed the stronger-than-expected finish to Cruz's strong grass-roots team and data and analytics operation, something that also helped him win Iowa.
The good news for Cruz: The next state on the docket, South Carolina, should be much friendlier for him. The bad news: Expectations will no longer be tempered for him, and he'll need to have a very strong showing in the Palmetto State.