Sen. Ted Cruz got half of what he wanted last night in Iowa: He defeated Donald Trump and the rest of the field, beating expectations which had him trailing Trump. But, Cruz’s ambition was, and remains, to make this a two-man race by running far ahead of the rest of the pack. Cruz could have handled being in second place provided he and Trump were the only ones near the top. Instead, Cruz has to reflect upon the fate of the last two Iowa winners, Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012 and Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008. To be sure, Cruz is better positioned today than either of those two candidates were then, he has gobs more money and stands to benefit the most from Ben Carson’s expected departure from the race.
How did Cruz catch Trump? Most GOP voters yesterday said that, more than a candidate who "spoke the truth" or someone who could "win in November," what mattered to them was voting for someone who "shared my values," and most of those voters backed Cruz. He had a disciplined organization that he can replicate in the southern states: combinations of conservative activists, evangelical pastors, and home schooling networks. On the other hand, Cruz’s obstacle was obvious in his victory speech: He hit every doctrinaire note in his platform, and was completely, relentlessly on message, but he went on way too long and his overall affect was dour. George W. Bush used to say that no one ever buys a product that makes you feel worse. This is Cruz’s problem: He speaks to the conservative base, but his speeches are too dark for most Americans. To the extent Americans like conservatives, they like them smiling like Reagan.
Donald Trump underperformed his poll numbers. The first time candidate lacked the necessary organization in Iowa to turn his enthusiastic backers out in sufficient numbers at the right polling places. It is a rookie mistake, but it dents whatever aura of bring the winner Trump wanted to take with him out of Iowa. Trump’s stump speech talks about winning, always winning, about how America is losing now and he will make us win again. He handled being a loser last night with surprising grace: His speech was short, he said he loved Iowa, congratulated Cruz, etc. It was the most un-Trump speech imaginable and if he would show that less obnoxious side more often, he might be a real threat down the line. Correction: He is still a threat down the line. He has barely tapped his private war chest, he continues to lead the national and New Hampshire polls, although both will take a hit in the days ahead, and no one manipulates the news cycle like Trump. He was down last night in Iowa, but he is far from out.
Arguably, Sen. Marco Rubio had the best night, his bronze medal coming as a surprise and shining just as brightly as Cruz’s gold and Trump’s silver. It is obvious that "the governors" -- Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and John Kasich -- made a mistake in concentrating on New Hampshire and ceding Iowa. Rubio now has the establishment lane to himself, the establishment money will start to head his way, and look for his poll numbers in New Hampshire to shift upward.
In the past two cycles, the establishment candidate ended up winning, McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012. Rubio’s problem is that he needs this to become a two-man race and that did not happen last night. Indeed, the scariest number for Rubio is 61, which is the percentage of Iowa voters who backed the three anti-establishment candidates, Cruz, Trump & Carson. With only 39 percent remaining, even if Rubio collects all of the voters currently supporting the governors, he has well short of a majority. This is the GOP’s problem overall: All three of the candidates who made it on to the Iowa podium have the money, a core of support, and a rationale that appeals to a sizeable slice of the GOP electorate. All three can go the distance. This is politics, so any one of them could slip on a banana peel tomorrow, but it is not difficult to see these three candidates dividing the primary electorate about evenly for the remaining contests, with not one of them entering the convention with a majority of delegates.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton won by a razor-thin margin, but a win is a win is a win. Yesterday, I said that I thought she could survive a loss in Iowa, where the electorate is far to the left of the rest of the country and where the demographics do not reflect core constituencies in which Clinton is running strong. Put differently, if Sen. Bernie Sanders can’t win Iowa, it is hard to imagine him winning Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio, to say nothing of a state like South Carolina with a large number of black voters who have, so far, backed Clinton. Sanders has a ton of money and can go the distance, but I think he will fade as the contests move on to primaries in larger states with more diverse electorates. All last night, as the press compared his vote totals to Obama’s in 2008, I kept thinking: Obama won Iowa and still had to fight for the nomination. Sanders lost.
Once again, the Iowa voters surprised the pundits. Trump did not win, Cruz did better than expected and Rubio did much better than expected. But, both Cruz and Rubio need to turn this into a two-man race, and that did not happen last night. This is going to be a long slog on the GOP side and I would not be betting against Donald Trump any time soon.