Despite its best attempts to fail, the biggest winner of the Iowa Caucus last night was the GOP itself, which generated an unprecedented level of energy and engagement among voters in a critical swing state. That energy was generated thanks to a group of leading candidates who actually appealed to the GOP’s grassroots voter base. Turnout was more than 186,000, more than 50 percent higher than any Iowa GOP Caucus in history, and 46 percent of those were first time caucus attendees. And this turnout boom can’t be all chalked up the “Trump Effect”. Even if every Trump voter had stayed home, turnout for the remaining candidates would have still been more than 15 percent higher than it had been at any previous caucus. That’s remarkable.
And the night’s biggest loser wasn’t Donald Trump (though he indeed lost big), but the GOP establishment, what William F. Buckley once referred to in the initial mission statement of National Review as the “Well-fed right whose ignorance and amorality have never been exaggerated for the same reason that one cannot exaggerate infinity.” They suffered a loss so ignominious and dramatic that one needs to step back a bit to reflect on its comprehensiveness. The campaign began with seventeen GOP candidates, of whom eleven had longtime pre-Tea Party era experience in elected office, including several senators and the former Governors of Texas, New York, and Florida. Between pre-caucus drop-outs and election night performances, those eleven candidates took just nine percent of the vote combined. Nine percent. The other ninety-one percent of the vote went to candidates who had neither not held federal or statewide office before 2010 or whom had never held office at all.
In the face of repudiation this total, a sane party establishment would re-evaluate everything that it had been doing over the past decade: its policies, its strategies and its rhetoric. Sadly, the GOP establishment shows no signs of creeping sanity, so expect more quotes from lobbyists and failed presidential candidates taking shots at Ted Cruz, or any other candidate who attempts to wean the GOP from its addiction to amnesty, the lobbying gravy train, the donor class, insulting its voters, and losing presidential elections. Plus, as a bonus, we can look forward the typical bout of “concern trolling” from our friends in the left-wing media, who will lament how awful it would be for the GOP’s electoral prospects if the party actually nominated a conservative for President. To which I can only respond: “Br’er Fox, please don’t throw the GOP in that briar patch!”
Among the candidates, Cruz was the biggest winner last night, and again it helps to step back a bit to realize the scale of Cruz’s triumph. Cruz trailed in all of the last eleven polls before the caucuses. Iowa Gov. Branstad, the longest-serving Governor in our nation’s history, had specifically called for his defeat, breaking a long traditional of gubernatorial neutrality in the Iowa Caucus. Cruz had publicly opposed ethanol subsidies, supposedly, the third rail in Iowa politics. He’d been universally attacked by the establishment, including former party standard bearers who suggested that even Trump was preferable.
And he’d even weathered attacks from the GOP’s two biggest populist phenomena of recent memory, Sarah Palin and Donald Trump, who had left candidates before Cruz destroyed in their wake. And yet, he emerged from this winner of the Iowa Caucus with by far the most votes of any Iowa Caucus candidate in history, a number only a few thousand short of Romney and Santorum’s combined 2012 totals.
Team Cruz had an incredible data operation, a tireless candidate and a smart and disciplined campaign. But at the end of the day, you have to appeal to voters. And Cruz did that with enormous success.Not bad for the candidate with an alleged “likability problem.” Even the most optimistic of Cruz’s inner circle didn’t think he would win if turnout crossed 170,000. It far exceeded that, and he won anyway. He now moves into New Hampshire only needing to perform credibly before the contests move to the South, where Cruz is better organized than any other candidate. Cruz has a very legitimate path to the nomination, and, after Iowa, it just got a lot wider.
The other obvious winner on the night was Marco Rubio, who played the expectations game perfectly, surged late and came in a close third to Donald Trump, an outcome that nobody would have expected just a week ago (though it was picked up in the race’s final three polls). There’s no question that Rubio is one of the GOP’s most winsome campaigners, but his performance in Iowa showed his team has no shortage of tactical chops as well. Rubio absolutely dominated the “establishment lane” of the caucus, and arguably the biggest challenge he faces going forward is that that lane may not be big enough to get him a majority. Unlike most of his establishment colleagues, however, Rubio has shown ability, reflecting his Tea Party origins, to appeal to evangelicals and conservatives as well, giving him room to grow as the campaign proceeds.
Rubio needs a runner-up or better finish in New Hampshire to emerge as the clear establishment choice and he will face tough competition from Bush, Kasich and others who had long ago focused their efforts on New Hampshire. But, albeit with different emphases, both he and Cruz offer an attractive choice for GOP voters going forward.
The betting markets currently favor Rubio for the nomination — but they arguably overlook the fact that this still looks like a three horse race, and Trump backers still overwhelmingly prefer Cruz to Rubio should Trump lose support or exit. From an electoral perspective, Rubio is unquestionably an appealing candidate for many years — but it is not clear whether 2016 will be one of them.
Aside from the GOP establishment, Trump is of course the obvious loser today, and it will be interesting to see how his numbers hold up now that his aura of invincibility has been pierced. He still has to be considered the solid favorite in New Hampshire, where he has dominated polling, but if he somehow loses there, it could unravel quickly for him. If he wins, the establishment is faced with an unappealing choice. No recent nominee has ever won without winning Iowa or New Hampshire—a fact that may make pragmatists in the establishment have to make an unpalatable choice between Trump and Cruz.
Huckabee and Santorum were the night’s two other prominent losers, with Huckabee dropping out before the night is over and the two former Iowa Caucus winners mustering less than three percent of the total vote. Iowa Evangelicals rejection of Huckabee and Santorum, who carried Iowa despite being no-hope candidates in 2008 and 2012, may reflect a growing political pragmatism among evangelical voters who wanted to back a winner, and gravitated primarily to Cruz, with whom there was a natural fit, but also, to a lesser degree, to Rubio or Trump for whom the match was less obvious.
Despite the somewhat surprising results last night in Iowa, the long-term dynamic of the race remains largely the same. It looks like a three-man contest between Cruz, Trump and Rubio. And while Cruz drew first blood, there are a lot of contests yet to fight before the GOP determines its standard-bearer.