Des Moines — It’s all relative. That’s been the operating theory of Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, which has confounded both political analysts and the press. And yet Rubio’s team has been firm in its belief that, by under-promising and over-delivering, it can generate the sort of excitement, energy, and yes, actual delegates needed to capture the Republican nomination. They even thought that by notching a strong third-place finish, with over 23 percent of the vote, Rubio would emerge from the Iowa caucuses on Monday evening with more momentum that the winner, Ted Cruz.
That’s why Rubio, who nearly caught the longtime Iowa frontrunner, Donald Trump (who finished just a point ahead of him), walked on stage to deliver a victory speech here in Des Moines on Monday. “This is the moment they said would never happen,” he declared as he took the stage at the Marriott hotel downtown.
And so, while Cruz may have won the caucuses, which he needed to do, Rubio did something his campaign considers more important: He defied expectations.
Rubio and his team worked deliberately to keep expectations in check in the days leading up to the caucuses. “I’m just trying to get as many people to caucus for me as possible,” Rubio said Saturday afternoon in Ames. There was no public pushback when the final — and famously accurate — Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll was released that afternoon showing Rubio in a distant third place with 15 percent of the vote.
Whereas Cruz had publicly defined success as victory in Iowa, Rubio’s team had carefully described it in relative terms.
Rubio was the first of the top three candidates to speak on caucus night, delivering his speech within a half hour of the results’ being declared. He monopolized the airwaves and got going early enough to ensure that his whole speech aired, helping to cement the narrative that he had a victory in Iowa, alongside the one that was officially declared for Cruz.
It was in tune with Rubio’s strategy as a whole, which has relied heavily on media and television appearances, as opposed to stumping in every corner of the state. Rubio was heavily criticized for concentrating many of his events around the highly populous Des Moines area and rarely venturing to far-flung corners of the state, while candidates such as Cruz trudged to all of Iowa’s 99 counties. But tonight’s results sent the message: to each his own.
In the final days of the caucuses, Rubio’s team aired a 30-minute commercial on Iowa television that showcased his town-hall appearances throughout the state. The general sentiment in the campaign was that there would be more eyeballs on Rubio when he was on TV than there would be if he visited every small town in the state.
The momentum from Cruz’s finish tonight puts him into strong contention for second place in New Hampshire. Polls taken in New Hampshire over the past week have found Cruz around 12 percent, putting him a point or two ahead of the establishment pack. What’s more, New Hampshire Republicans say there is an opening for Cruz there. Though the state historically votes for a more moderate, establishment-style candidate, there is a sliver of the electorate to whom Cruz’s brand of conservatism would likely appeal. As of yet, no candidate has made any significant effort to win over these voters.
If Cruz decides to play hard in New Hampshire, a state in which he has heretofore spent little time, it could hasten the long-predicted head-on collision between Rubio and Cruz.
The momentum from Cruz’s finish tonight puts him into strong contention for second place in New Hampshire.
But the collision seems more likely to come in South Carolina, a state where both senators have devoted significant time and resources. Rubio’s team feels good about going up against Cruz in South Carolina, a state where Rubio has a strong team and the support of Representative Trey Gowdy, among the most popular conservative politicians in the state.
What is certain is that Rubio will be fending off attacks from all sides. The campaign acknowledges that the amount of money the super PAC supporting Bush, Right to Rise, has spent attacking him — the Rubio campaign says $20 million; Right to Rise says it is less than that, but declines to provide a specific number — has dented him in the polls. And Bush is a particular, if unnamed, target of Rubio’s speeches.
“They told me we had no chance because my hair wasn’t gray enough and my boots were too high,” Rubio said on Monday. “They told me I needed to wait my turn.”
“They,” of course, is the so-called establishment, particularly its members in Florida who hoped he would step aside and allow Bush to run without major competition. Bush is rolling his eyes at such remarks. “It’s called politics,” he tells National Review.
But the battle between Rubio and the establishment will play out in full in New Hampshire. Rubio’s performance in Iowa means he enters that fray as the strongest contender.On Monday, Rubio was talking like a winner. “Tonight we have taken the first step, but an important step, to winning this election,” he told the crowd. “When I am our nominee, we are going to unify this party, and we are going to unify the conservative movement. When I’m our nominee, we are going to grow the conservative movement.#…#When I’m our nominee we will unite our party, we will grow our party, and we will defeat Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.”
This was not the last time Iowa would see him, he promised. He vowed that when he won the nomination, he would return, seeking their votes.
“Iowa, thank you so much,” Rubio said. “We will never forget you. We will see you soon again. And, New Hampshire, we will see you in the morning!”
— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review. Eliana Johnson, the Washington editor for National Review, contributed to the reporting for this piece.