Against the Grain

Buckle Up, It’s a Three-Way GOP Race

After Cruz’s win and Rubio’s surge, Trump won’t be monopolizing the airwaves anymore.

Ted Cruz on caucus night in Des Moines, Iowa.
AP Photo/Chris Carlson
Feb. 1, 2016, 11:41 p.m.

DES MOINES, Iowa—After the hype, end­less me­dia at­ten­tion, and dom­in­ance in the polls, Don­ald Trump is leav­ing Iowa with a whim­per. The bil­lion­aire busi­ness­man barely hung on to second place, be­hind Ted Cruz and nar­rowly ahead of a sur­ging Marco Ru­bio.  What happened?  Why did all the ex­perts mis­dia­gnose the Trump ef­fect?

From my re­port­ing in the fi­nal week of the cam­paign, the signs of Trump fa­tigue were all over. A rally in Coun­cil Bluffs on Sunday hardly filled the middle school gym­nas­i­um, and drew out-of-state gawkers, mem­or­ab­il­ia seekers, and Iowa voters who were there just to see the spec­tacle. His lead­ing sur­rog­ate, Sarah Pal­in, was re­ceived with si­lence in in­tro­du­cing him Monday in Ce­dar Rap­ids. Empty seats con­tin­ued at his events. He not­ably de­clined to pre­dict vic­tory on Monday’s morn­ing shows.

It was clear that the pub­lic’s ob­ses­sion with polls had ob­scured cent­ral real­it­ies about the tra­ject­ory of the race. Cruz had a well-or­gan­ized ma­chine that was far more valu­able than the hype man­u­fac­tured by Trump. Ru­bio’s as­pir­a­tion­al mes­sage caught on late, as his crowds got big­ger and his sup­port inched up­wards. Trump’s sup­port­ers were ideo­lo­gic­ally all over the map, and many of his col­lege-edu­cated back­ers de­fec­ted to Ru­bio at the last minute. (En­trance polls showed Ru­bio was seen as the most elect­able Re­pub­lic­an, con­trary to all the me­dia polls show­ing Trump with that ad­vant­age.)

Even with Trump’s de­feat, this is now a true three-can­did­ate race. Cruz has ce­men­ted his stand­ing as the can­did­ate backed by the con­ser­vat­ive grass­roots—which should hold him in good stead for a long while. His or­gan­iz­a­tion was the best in the state. He’s now hop­ing to beat ex­pect­a­tions, and more im­port­antly, fo­cus his at­ten­tion on South Car­o­lina, where evan­gel­ic­als play an even lar­ger role in the state’s polit­ics than in Iowa.

“To­night is a vic­tory for the grass­roots and for cour­ageous con­ser­vat­ives across Iowa,” Cruz de­clared in his vic­tory speech. “Iowa has sent no­tice that the GOP nom­in­ee will not be chosen by the me­dia. It will not be chosen by the Wash­ing­ton es­tab­lish­ment. It will not be chosen by the lob­by­ists.”

Ru­bio couldn’t have asked for a much bet­ter res­ult, either. Ex­pect Ru­bio to use his strong fin­ish to con­sol­id­ate sup­port in the cen­ter-right lane in New Hamp­shire. His quick re­ac­tion to the res­ults soun­ded like a vic­tory speech. His 23 per­cent tally far out­dis­tanced his num­bers in the polls, which put him at roughly 15 per­cent. Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich barely re­gistered in Iowa even though the first two spent ample time here in the fi­nal week. (In an Urb­andale pre­cinct once con­sidered a Bush strong­hold, Ru­bio won 152 votes and Bush got 8.) And if Trump con­tin­ues to be a ma­jor pres­ence, he’s poised to hurt Cruz a little more than Ru­bio in the states to come—in par­tic­u­lar, in South Car­o­lina.  

In­deed, Trump will still be a ma­jor play­er des­pite his dis­ap­point­ing show­ing. The biggest ques­tion is wheth­er his col­lapse in Iowa will sig­ni­fic­antly de­flate his num­bers else­where.  There’s reas­on to be­lieve that Trump could lose New Hamp­shire, where he cur­rently holds a com­mand­ing lead. As Ru­bio con­sol­id­ates sup­port, Trump loses some of his.  

But Trump still has a floor of dis­af­fected work­ing-class voters who won’t be go­ing away. In South­ern states, those voters over­lap sig­ni­fic­antly with Cruz sup­port­ers. Against his in­stincts, he gave a gra­cious, brief con­ces­sion speech, show­ing he can learn from past mis­takes. There was no Howard Dean-scream mo­ment here. Trump still has op­por­tun­it­ies to put vic­tor­ies on the board, but in the short term he’s Ru­bio’s best stra­tegic friend.

Monday night was also a small vic­tory for the much-ma­ligned es­tab­lish­ment wing of the Re­pub­lic­an Party, des­pite Cruz’s clear vic­tory. Ru­bio boost­ers couldn’t have asked for a bet­ter out­come than Trump crum­bling, Ru­bio far ex­ceed­ing ex­pect­a­tions, and Bernie Sanders com­ing out the Demo­crat­ic caucuses with a vir­tu­al tie with Hil­lary Clin­ton. Re­pub­lic­ans are em­barked on a long and con­ten­tious nom­in­a­tion fight, but the odds of the Demo­crats fa­cing a messy ideo­lo­gic­al battle for months is much like­li­er after Monday night’s res­ults.

But the GOP res­ult wasn’t due to the party es­tab­lish­ment’s own ef­forts. The anti-Trump ele­ments with­in the Re­pub­lic­an Party talked a big game, but pro­claimed help­less­ness. They ar­gued that at­tack ads against a Te­flon Trump were point­less, and would back­fire. But when Cruz’s cam­paign and a sep­ar­ate su­per PAC run by former Mitt Rom­ney ad­viser Katie Pack­er went on air in the race’s fi­nal week, his num­bers tumbled. That’s not a co­in­cid­ence.

So, buckle up. We’re all but guar­an­teed a fas­cin­at­ing nom­in­at­ing battle with­in both parties for at least a couple months. And after Monday night, we won’t just be bom­barded with all-Trump, all-the-time. We’ll be hear­ing a lot more about Ted Cruz and Marco Ru­bio too.

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