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Ted Cruz Is a Damn Good Actor

As Wisconsin TV viewers are discovering this week, nobody’s better at the “talking directly to you” ad than the Texas senator and former thespian.

Cruz for President/YouTube

Ted Cruz is sitting at your kitchen table. There are pink books stacked neatly on the shelf behind him. Delicate lace curtains hang from the windows. “Wisconsin is a beautiful place,” the Texas senator says, in a voice huskier than his trademark nasal whine. “Our campaign is for the working moms, the truck drivers, the mechanics and machinists with callouses on their hands.” The music swells. This fellow is going to repeal Obamacare! Peel back the EPA and all those burdensome regulations holding back the working moms and calloused mechanics! The camera cuts out. Cruz saunters through a smoky field at twilight, a rifle thrown over his shoulder.

Could this be the same man who’s perhaps best known for repelling just about everybody on both sides of the political aisle—fellow senators, former presidents, and regular folks on the campaign trail alike? Surely not. The Ted Cruz that comes across during commercial breaks is earnest, inspirational, even amusing at times. From the start of the campaign, his ads have been designed to create this alt-version of Cruz—and now, on the eve of the crucial Wisconsin primary next Tuesday, it looks like these ads might have have succeeded in making him “likable enough,” at least by contrast with Donald Trump. 

Cruz has released five new spots in Wisconsin over the past week alone—three of them showing him at home, emoting into the camera. In a year when TV ads have influenced the campaign arguably less than ever before, Cruz’s commercials have been the lone exceptions. And part of the secret has been the Texas senator’s little-known talent: The man can really act, perhaps at a level no presidential contender has attained since Ronald Reagan.

I watch lots of campaign ads in my work at the New Republic. Some are better than others, but in general, the earnest candidates, rippling American flags, and sun-drenched farmland tend to blur together. Even the attack ads begin to look the same, an endless montage of old Meet the Press interviews and newspaper headlines.

The Cruz ads have always been a little different. The Texas senator was the first presidential candidate to go on television, releasing a commercial in Iowa about “the transformative love of Jesus Christ” over Easter weekend last year, weeks before the other Republican candidates even entered the race. Cruz had wisely hired two separate firms to coordinate media: a hip, young Hollywood operation to design viral content, and a more staid firm in Washington that would craft more traditional issue and biographical spots like the Easter ad. 

A couple of the viral ads have proven memorable because of their humor. In one, Cruz reads Christmas stories like “How Obamacare Stole Christmas” and “Rudolf the Underemployed Reindeer” aloud to his family. In another, bankers and journalists clutching legal pads and laptops scurry across the border while a Mission Impossible-like soundtrack thuds in the background.

But the Cruz ads that matter most are the ones where he talks straight into the camera. In January, the television analytics firm Ace Metrix assembled a panel to assess which campaign ads from the Republican race had been most effective. They singled out the 11 best, and five had been produced for Cruz. The single highest-scoring ad showed the Texas senator earnestly holding forth for 30 seconds, saying: “Every Islamic militant will know if you wage jihad against us, you’re signing your death warrant. And under no circumstances will I ever apologize for America.”

When Marco Rubio tried this format, he struggled to summon emotion for the cameras and ended up looking like he had food poisoning. Cruz, however, an actor in high school (he played Rolf, the delivery boy-turned-Nazi, in The Sound of Music) and law school, knows how to convey sentiment on the small screen. You almost empathize with him, no matter what you think about that other Ted Cruz, because he cares so much about America, looks so earnest, and is so troubled about the direction we’re heading in.

These ads haven’t always paid off—heavy rotations in South Carolina yielded Cruz nothing in that primary—but it appears they’re working in Wisconsin, where the Texas senator is locked (alongside Republican establishment groups) in a battle to derail Trump. Two of Cruz’s five new ads in the Badger State are set around the same kitchen table. Another looks like it was filmed in his living room. “As American families sit around their kitchen tables, they’re worried,” Cruz says in one. “Worried they’re falling behind, worried about their jobs, their freedom, their security.” Soft lighting and soaring music add the uplifting ethos. With the camera focused on him for a full 30 seconds, Cruz looks like a plainspoken guy who’s eschewing all the campaign chicanery to tell voters what he really thinks.

One secret to these ads’ success in Wisconsin might be familiarity: They strongly resemble the commercials that have helped Governor Scott Walker win two elections (and one recount) in Wisconsin—ads in which Walker talked directly to viewers about job creation or abortion from what looked like his living room.

More important, many Wisconsin Republicans are clearly looking for an antidote to Trumpism. The state’s unusually influential conservative radio hosts are bemoaning Trump on the airwaves. Charlie Sykes, for example, says Wisconsinites are “not buying the vulgar buffoonery that Trump is selling”—and the polls, including a recent one showing Cruz with a ten-point edge in the state, indicate that he’s on to something. Meanwhile, the Ted Cruz that Wisconsin TV viewers are seeing looks like Trump’s polar opposite—no vulgarity, no buffoonery, no celebrity, no insult-shouting. Just Ted Cruz, vastly underrated actor, performing sincerity, and performing it very well.


While there were some commercials airing in New York this week, in the long build-up to its April 19 primary, Wisconsin—which votes next Tuesday—was the state most bombarded with new ads. We’ve analyzed ten ads that debuted this week and listed the rest below. You can see every presidential campaign ad that’s run during this cycle at the New Republic’s 2016 Campaign Ad Archive

John Kasich: “Nose” 

Type: Attack ad

Who Paid for It? New Day for America, the super PAC supporting John Kasich

Reach: Aired in Wisconsin as part of a $500,000 ad buy 

Impact: This ad includes what may be the single most disturbing image this presidential cycle: Cruz’s nose growing so long and creeping around his neck that it eventually strangles him in a fleshy, nasal noose. It’ll surely strike fear into the hearts of children everywhere—not to mention ruin Pinocchio for good. 

This week’s other ad from New Day for America: Again” 

Ted Cruz: “Opportunity” 

Type: Issue ad 

Who Paid for It? The Cruz campaign

Reach: Aired in Wisconsin

Impact: Ted Cruz sometimes seems like he’s straining for rhetorical flourishes in his campaign ads—to wit, from this one, “machinists with callouses on their hands,” “people place solutions over slogans,” and “courageous conservatives reigniting the promise of America.” Please lay off the alliteration, TrusTed.

Ted Cruz: “Walker” 

Type: Endorsement ad 

Who Paid for It? The Cruz campaign

Reach: Aired in Wisconsin

Impact: One awkward politician endorses another. Scott Walker and Ted Cruz are a match made in heaven. They both try to frame themselves as plainspoken, average Americans. They even look somewhat similar with their thinning, dark hair. Walker’s endorsement should pack a sizable punch in the Badger State, where the Wisconsin governor is still popular among Republicans. 

Ted Cruz: “Every Day Fighter” 

Type: Issue ad

Who Paid for It? The Cruz campaign

Reach: Aired in Wisconsin as part of a $350,000 ad buy

Impact: The car shop featured in this Cruz spot is a picturesque Republican idyll—a small business decked out with American flags, old cars, and strapping white men. No wonder the campaign chose to film it here. 

Ted Cruz: “Tax Plan” 

Type: Issue ad 

Who Paid for It? The Cruz campaign

ReachAired in Wisconsin as part of a $350,000 ad buy

Impact: This is another earnest Ted Cruz ad set to music, notable mainly because the narrator says his tax plan would “END the IRS” and insists on drawing a bold X over IRS in case we didn’t already get the message.  

Ted Cruz: “Worried” 

Type: Issue ad 

Who Paid for It? The Cruz campaign

ReachAired in Wisconsin as part of a $350,000 ad buy

Impact: Yet another earnest Ted Cruz ad set to music! While the message isn’t particularly memorable, the impression of Cruz that it leaves with viewers—that he’s thoughtful, concerned, and relatively sympathetic—is what might make the difference when the Texas senator goes head-to-head with Donald Trump in Wisconsin on Tuesday. 

Club for Growth: “Math” 

Type: Attack ad

Who Paid for It? Club for Growth, an anti-tax group that has endorsed Ted Cruz 

Reach: Aired in Wisconsin as part of a $1 million ad buy 

Impact: This ad from the makes the same argument that conservatives have been trotting out whenever they want Kasich to leave the race: That he’ll never come anywhere close to the 1,237 delegates he would need to win the nomination outright. 
It’s a valid point! But this ad frames the issue as “math,” and then does no math whatsoever, apart from piling two little blocks on one another. 

Ted Cruz: “Kasich Won’t Play” 

Type: Attack ad 

Who Paid for It? Trusted Leadership PAC, an outside group supporting Ted Cruz 

Reach: Aired in Wisconsin 

Impact: Tired sports cliches are a fixture in political campaigns, but this ad takes ‘em to a new level. It photoshops the dweeby Ohio governor John Kasich into various athletic settings, including one animated image of Xs and Os moving around a basketball court drawn on a chalkboard.  

Hillary Clinton: “New York” 

Type: Issue ad 

Who Paid for It? The Clinton campaign

Reach: Aired in New York

Impact: This ad, which takes viewers around New York City from Ellis Island to a deli counter, is the first time Hillary Clinton has directly taken on Donald Trump in a campaign ad. Her message is simple: “New York values” really mean inclusivity and multiculturalism, not bigotry and xenophobia. 

This week’s other ads from the Clinton campaign: “Education” and “Work Hard

This week’s other ads from Our Principles PAC: Know” and “Trust”