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.