At the end of the day, what happened in Iowa tonight was not a particularly surprising outcome.
People in Iowa who know the caucus process had been saying to anyone who would listen that what wins in Iowa is organization, and Ted Cruz built the best Republican campaign organization anyone had seen since George W. Bush in 2000.
But few were listening until tonight. What the rest of the country heard about Iowa was that Donald Trump had the votes because Donald Trump had the poll numbers, and Donald Trump had the butts in the seats when his roadshow alighted on various arenas and other venues. And therefore Trump was the favorite.
That was a nice media narrative right up until the votes started being counted. But then reality set in on the reality TV star.
Trump was favored by five points over Cruz in the polls, and he lost to him by almost four points. That’s a nine-point swing, and that’s organization.
So here are seven thoughts about where we are in the presidential race…
1. Cruz finished with better than 51,000 votes in the Iowa caucuses, which is the most any Republican has ever garnered in an Iowa caucus – the previous record was Mike Huckabee’s just under 41,000 in 2008 (Trump and Rubio also bested that number). And he did it despite a gigantic field of 12 contenders, plus the media juggernaut of Donald Trump not only running against him but laying into him with personal attacks so scurrilous and unprofessional as to boggle the mind, plus the weight of the state’s Republican governor Terry Bransted and his ethanol lobby machine descending on Cruz with vengeance and vituperation because he was willing to slay the sacred cow of subsidies and mandates.
The magnitude of the accomplishment won’t be given its due in the media. You’ll hear a lot about other things which happened tonight. But Cruz overcoming Trump, the ethanol lobby and that giant field of alternatives – Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Rand Paul, who combined for 18 percent of the vote the majority of which Cruz would likely be entitled to in a smaller field – was the story.
Cruz clearly studied past campaigns which won Iowa, modeled his effort after them and bested them. Despite the turnout in the Iowa caucuses beating the 2012 record by almost 50 percent, which the media’s conventional wisdom held was a sure sign Trump would win, he scored a stellar victory.
2. Has the Trump fever broken? It’s too early to tell, but there were polls showing Trump in the 30’s prior to this caucus and he finished with only 24 – just one percent ahead of Rubio. There is no other way to slice this other than a bitter disappointment for the supposed “frontrunner” in the GOP race. The last 13 polls in Iowa showed Trump winning, and he did not win.
And clearly Trump is bleeding tonight. He’s now taken a loss, which his camp refused to admit was possible until the very end of the race. Trump backed out of the final debate in a fit of petulance the voters punished him for, and he spent the final two weeks before tonight’s vote making statements along the lines that he could make deals with the Democrats and the Establishment.
Trump goes into New Hampshire a much larger favorite than he went into Iowa as, but he doesn’t have the momentum he had yesterday. Now he’s the prey for the rest of the field. Cruz has bested him, and Rubio came close. And this narrative he benefited from – that Trump can do whatever he wants and it’s all brilliant, and that he can’t make an actual mistake – has now been dented a bit. He can make mistakes; skipping the debate was a glaring one, and so was the stupid detour into Cruz birtherism that made Trump’s supporters look like the largest herd of jackasses this side of the Pecos River.
How he handles the punch is a question. Does he brood about Iowa? Does he implode? Does the money being spent attacking Rubio and Cruz now shift to attacks on Trump? It might – Trump’s votes in New Hampshire appear to be perhaps the most numerous and perhaps the most obtainable. He might find himself under siege in the next week.
3. Rubio had a great night, but how great is it? It appears, though New Hampshire could well make it cloudy, that Rubio has now made this a three-man race. The 23 percent he pulled out of Iowa tonight was a considerably stronger finish than anyone expected, and if the young senator from Florida had been able to squeeze past Trump he could well have scored a game-changing upset. So it is not out of bounds to say Rubio is the “winner” in Iowa even though it’s not correct – Cruz is the winner in Iowa, and nobody should make the mistake of thinking otherwise.
But while Rubio did a good job of beating expectations nobody should think he’s in a strong position compared to either Trump or Cruz. He isn’t. What Rubio is doing, subject to having the waters muddied in New Hampshire by a Chris Christie or a John Kasich or even a Jeb Bush, is to consolidate the Establishment Lane of the primary race behind himself. And he’s needed to do that, but he needed to do it a while ago.
Jeb Bush got three percent of the vote in Iowa, which makes Jeb Bush essentially a zombie candidate. But Jeb Bush is a zombie candidate with a Super PAC that still has millions of dollars it spends almost exclusively on attacking Rubio. Rubio has overcome that so far, and he could well take that three percent when Jeb finally goes away – and he could get the four or five percent Kasich and Christie claimed in Iowa as well. Beyond that, though, he might be hitting his ceiling as the Establishment Lane candidate. Is there enough vote available to win the nomination? Probably not – because when Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Rick Santorum, Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee get out (Huckabee already did), their votes will go primarily to Cruz and perhaps to Trump.
What this means is Rubio is going to need to find a way to steal votes from Trump. That’s going to be hard for him to do.
And Rubio’s narrative – that he’s the one who can beat Hillary Clinton – isn’t the strongest. Watching the carnage on the Democrat side, most Republicans are going to be less and less afraid of Hillary and maybe even less and less sure it’s going to be her and not Bernie Sanders waiting in November.
4. It’s closing time for most of this field. Bush, Kasich, Christie, Paul, Fiorina, Santorum and Gilmore need to join Huckabee in the ranks of ex-candidates.
Bush, Kasich and Christie have all pointed at one point or another to polls showing them in second place in New Hampshire. Perhaps one of them will actually make good on those polls, and in such a case there is the potential for life beyond New Hampshire. But let’s not kid ourselves – none of them have any path to victory in this race. Paul polled best of the group at a scant five percent, and the rest were at three percent or less. And the fact is none of them have the ability to offer a message the vast majority of the Republican voting base is interested in. Consider that in Iowa, 62 percent of the vote went to Cruz, Trump or Carson, and another 23 percent went to the most Tea Party friendly of the “establishment” candidates in Rubio (that’s arguable; Paul might be able to lay claim to that title, but it’s been some time since he was seen as viable). That means the top end for any one of those candidates is maybe 15 percent.
They might be able to bump that number up a little using New Hampshire’s results, since New Hampshire has a bit different psychographic profile than Iowa, but it won’t be all that much bigger, and it won’t be enough to change the fact that nobody is going to give any of these guys money going forward.
In a week, all of them could and should be gone. Any who remain are doing so just to see the country and eat free hors-d’ouvres at small gatherings in private residences.
5. The DC-NYC crowd is losing its grip on America’s political narrative. The atrocious performance by the Establishment candidates, and the atrocious performance by the Wall Street and K Street money in trying to direct the flow of the race on both sides of the aisle, must be taken into account. The American people, for better or worse, will no longer have their political choices dictated to them. Some 62 percent of the largest Republican electorate Iowa has ever produced by a colossal margin voted for candidates who expressly denounced political correctness and the rules laid out for them by the Beltway-New York establishment, and half the Democrats voted for a communist who wasn’t even a member of their party a year ago rather than the party’s “inevitable” candidate.
There is little doubt exploding that Establishment grip on the process is a victory for Trump above all others. His disappointing showing doesn’t negate that fact. The country will move forward without the direction of its elite, which makes this the most interesting presidential cycle in memory.
6. Bernie Sanders had Iowa for the taking, and might have blown it. Entrance polls showed Hillary Clinton absolutely in the toilet with Democrat voters on the question of trustworthiness; she got only 15 percent of the Democrat caucus vote of respondents who said that was their top issue. Sanders, meanwhile, refused to press that advantage by making an issue of the budding e-mail scandal which by all rights ought to result in Clinton’s indictment. Saying “we don’t want to hear about your damn e-mails” was a colossally amateur thing to say; he didn’t even do Clinton any favors by refusing to vet his opponent, and he needed to.
Entrance polls also showed that among voters who see health care as their most important issue Hillary beat Sanders by a 58-37 margin, and you can’t watch Sanders speak for more than three minutes without hearing him push his idea of Medicare-for-all socialized medicine. All he had to do was talk about how he’s an open book and he’s the guy who runs on principle and you can believe what he says, and he wins Iowa. Instead, he pushes crappy communist health care that even the leftists who populate the Democrat electorate in Iowa don’t have any use for, and he gets edged out by a dead candidate walking.
7. Hillary is the worst frontrunner the Democrats have ever had, and so far she’ll stay that way…for now. The final few votes counted might allow Sanders to squeak past her, and he’s going to annihilate her next week in New Hampshire, but Hillary is still, for now, the Democrats’ best hope to win the election. That becomes more true now that Martin O’Malley, who has to be the worst presidential candidate imaginable given how poorly he did and who his opposition was, quit the race tonight; O’Malley probably could have help on in hopes Hillary were to be indicted, because he’d then be the only thing standing between the Democrats and complete annihilation in the general election with Sanders on the ballot.
Sanders is a terrible candidate even notwithstanding his communist ideology. Any worthy opponent to him would wipe the floor with him even with the poor quality of the current Democrat electorate. Hillary couldn’t. Make all the excuses you want for her, but tonight’s performance was shockingly bad. She’s going to lose New Hampshire, and beyond that point she’s going to have louder and louder whispers that the e-mail scandal and the FBI investigation will remove her from the race (and the non-prison population, for that matter).
The Democrats are flat on their backs. They have nothing. The GOP primary race is where the winner will come from.