Later tonight, one of two stories could be told.

The first goes like this:

In a shocking turn of events, the once-favorite in Iowa, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), lost in the first 2016 presidential caucuses, a victim of his own hubris and over-hyped ground game. It is unclear whether Cruz can recover from a blow in a must-win state.

The second goes:

As many expected following the Des Moines Register’s and other polls’ recent results, billionaire Donald Trump outpaced Ted Cruz, who struggled back from an avalanche of negative ads to come in a strong second.

Same result — Trump wins and Cruz does not — but the storyline, the feel of the race, is quite different depending on one’s perspective.

Likewise, we could see one of these two stories:

As expected, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), fueled by an excellent ground game, was able to keep his presidential hopes alive despite a near-collapse in the polls.

Or:

Cruz, pulling a stunning comeback that defied many predictions, came back to win the Iowa caucuses, dealing what may be a death blow to Donald Trump and making him the odds-on favorite for the nomination.

Again, it’s all how the media, the operatives and the voters tell the story.

One thing is clear: Cruz let the expectations game get way out of hand, while Trump, the political amateur, did not. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is in a virtually no-lose situation if he comes in third, and would put significant distance between himself and the rest of the field. As Politico notes:

Somehow, against all the evidence, Rubio has successfully spun that he’s gunning only for third place here. In sharp contrast, Cruz’s campaign, touting its superior ground game, has openly pined for and predicted victory. . . .
“Expectations, in my opinion, are far more important than one person getting first place,” Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, told POLITICO. “Now, I don’t want to downplay that. The biggest ticket out of here is who gets first place. But there are far more tickets than that.”

The expectations management reflects the personalities of the three candidates.

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Cruz cannot help himself — his hubris and arrogance runneth over. After promising a win and taking early polls far too seriously, Cruz and his team were unprepared for the waves of attacks from Rubio, Trump and others in the closing two weeks of the race. He, of course, had been counting on a truce with Trump. And, getting sucked into the storyline that Rubio was not trying very hard in Iowa, Cruz shifted his focus to negative ads against Rubio only in the last few days.

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In contrast with Cruz, Rubio and his team are exceptionally cautious and disciplined, allowing the narrative to build that Rubio was taking it too easy and did not have a state in which he could break through. One has to be confident and iron-willed to squelch the urge to rebut those underestimating one’s efforts.

As for Trump, the “winner” image threatened to set the expectations bar too high for him in the first state where political organization is key. When his polls temporarily dipped, he played the expectations game superbly, letting Cruz brag and boast and telling voters he “might not win” Iowa. Trump, of all the candidates, understands how critical dramatic tension, showmanship and expectations can work for or against you. Years of self-promotion and reality TV have been instructive for him.

In 12 or so hours, we will have results. One reason, among many, that this race is bizarre and thrilling is that the media have no idea, really, who will win, nor any idea how that win is going to be portrayed. Politics is so much more engaging when the media, like the rest of the country, have to sit back and wait to find out how it all turns out.

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