Was Donald Trump really the big loser in Monday’s Iowa caucuses? That’s already the conventional wisdom emerging after Trump finished second, only slightly ahead of a surging Marco Rubio. It’s part of a line of attack on Trump that’s developed almost from the beginning of his entry into the race. Every seeming stumble on his part is seen as proof that his campaign is unsustainable, and will soon disappear in a furious blast of his own hot air.
Don’t bet on it.
There’s another way of looking at Trump’s second-place finish. He proved that his campaign is for real — not invincible, but yes, entirely viable, despite the doubts expressed by the GOP party establishment, including Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. With very limited campaign organization — or day-to-day retail politicking — of the kind experts deem essential to winning a caucus state, Trump managed to walk away with a quarter of the ballots based on the sheer tenacity of his presence and the angst of the Iowa electorate.
Cruz spent almost everything he had to win in Iowa and he did — but not by much. The result is a little reminiscent of what occurred in 2012, when Rick Santorum also rode the evangelical electorate to an even narrower victory, and Mitt Romney, the campaign front-runner, largely coasted to a near tie with much less grassroots effort. It was a bit of a pyrrhic victory for Santorum, as it illustrated his weakness as much as his strength. In the end, it didn’t change the campaign fundamentals.
There’s also the question of the tactics Cruz used to win. His campaign has been lauded for using sophisticated data gathering techniques to identify voters, but he’s admitted to employing “dirty tricks” against Ben Carson to try to weaken the neurosurgeon’s standing in the state. Trump has called into question Cruz’s use of fake mailers and other techniques that may have violated campaign rules. And now there are charges, baseless or not, that Rubio, operating in cahoots with Microsoft, a key corporate ally, may have rigged the precinct reporting to inflate the candidate’s delegate totals.
Remember, Trump never had a big lead in Iowa. He was neck and neck with Ben Carson in the polling for months, and then soon found himself in a statistical tie with Ted Cruz. He’d pulled ahead in the past week or so, which led some to suspect that he might prevail. However, two to three weeks ago, when Cruz was leading in the polls, everyone was predicting a Cruz victory of the kind that just transpired.
Look at the contests ahead. Trump has an enormous lead in New Hampshire, indeed a lead that has expanded dramatically during the past two weeks. Cruz as well as Rubio expended enormous energy in Iowa and have little to show for it in the Granite State. Ideologically, New Hampshire is not Iowa and there is little reason to expect a huge bounce for either Cruz or Rubio there. In fact, Rubio faces stiff competition from several other rivals for the establishment mantle – not only Bush but John Kasich and Chris Christie — and there is no great evangelical constituency to sustain Cruz, either.
Cruz will likely remain strong with evangelicals in the South, as did Huckabee in 2008, but has he really demonstrated an ability to break out to different GOP voter groups, as Trump has? There is no sign that Trump’s enormous lead in polling across the country — including the next few contests — will simply vanish. Some of these states, like South Carolina and Florida, are ideally suited for Trump’s media-driven campaign style. Trump also holds a commanding national lead, especially with emerging demographics – especially blue collar voters — that apparently he alone can tap.
No doubt elements of the GOP establishment will now try to rally around Rubio. There are rumors that Sen. Tim Scott and Gov. Nikki Haley, the two most sought after endorsers in South Carolina, will come out for Rubio this week. In SC, Rubio’s still running a very distant third, even further back than he was in Iowa. The fact is, if he can’t find a state to prevail in, as Trump surely can, Rubio will not go the distance.
Simply put, Iowa was not a “game changer.” It almost never is. The outcome simply helped define the campaign at its earliest stages, giving Cruz the solid footing among base conservatives that everyone knew he already had. No one except Trump himself really expected that he might pull off a win in Iowa. In fact, had he won, the GOP race would already be declared over.
Having fallen short of his maximal objective, Trump needs to recalibrate. He’s fallen down to earth, as do all candidates once the actual votes are cast. But for Donald, “earth” is still hovering substantially above the rest of the field. Cruz and Rubio may improve their position relative to Trump in national polling, and even some other state polls, but is it really enough to catch him? Nothing in the results from Iowa alone suggests that they will.