"Trump can't be second or third," said former Scott Walker pollster Ed Goeas. "The way he’s framed it is: You either win or lose. He’s going to have a hard time with his narrative if he doesn't win."
Like a contagion or an especially dank meme, that narrative traveled over to the liberal and mainstream media. Vox's David Roberts, citing the political science research of Larry Bartels, argued that Trump was benefiting by a "bandwagon effect" and that any kind of loss in Iowa would tip the wagon over. "Trump's vulnerability (like his strength!) is that his appeal is entirely personal, entirely based on the expectation that he's a winner who will win," Roberts wrote. A week later, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni dubbed this an "existential" problem for Trump: "Who is he if he can’t look down on all of his rivals?"
On Monday night, the "Trump voter" moved from mythology to reality. At the last count, 45,416 Iowans voted for Trump — more than voted for any Republican winner of the caucuses in history, far more than the 40,841 record set by Mike Huckabee eight years ago. But 6,233 more Iowans voted for Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) than for Trump, which was enough to start the "loser" narrative. The New York Daily News lit the fuse with a cover portraying Trump as a "dead clown walking." Trump's precious cable news was even crueler. With no small amount of schadenfreude, Trump's foes watched his superfans embrace a conspiracy that the Microsoft-driven vote-counting software was rigged against him. And on caucus night, surrogates for Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) felt liberated to joke about his vote collapsing.
In Buzzfeed, Monday was "the night Donald Trump became a loser." At Erick Erickson's new site, the Resurgent, Iowa had "decisively rejected the politics of jackassery." Someone else, his/her identity disguised by WhoIs, purchased "loser.com" and redirected it to Trump's Wikipedia page. Bill Kristol, one of the originators of the "one loss and Trump is out" theory, asked whether the mogul might follow the trajectory of John Edwards — a strong second in Iowa followed by fast decline.
But the hard answer is that no one knows how this will affect Trump. Part of the collapse theory, shared by hopeful Republican strategists for weeks, was that Trump would react to any loss with a meltdown. The analogue was not just Howard Dean, who did not write a concession speech in 2004, and ended up winging it with a famous raw-throated shout-out to 50 states. Trump himself reacted to Ben Carson's late autumn poll surge with a rambling speech that asked "how stupid are the people of Iowa" to believe Carson's biography.
The "how stupid" clip made it into the anti-Trump attack ads that surfaced in the final week before the Iowa caucuses. But Trump did not melt down again in Des Moines afterward. He congratulated Cruz, joked about buying a farm, and called it a night. Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire GOP chairman who had always doubted the one-punch theory of a Trump collapse, stuck to his analysis.
"I wasn't sure who to root for — I mean, for me, it was the equivalent of the Iran-Iraq War," Cullen said of Iowa's Trump-Cruz showdown. "But this isn't the Howard Dean campaign of 2004 that just went into a meltdown. His supporters have just been so impervious to logic, to argument, to ideological consistency. I'll be interested to see if his own logic changes."
The more intense, possibly fantastical version of the one-punch theory imagined that an Iowa loss, of any size, could make Trump simply quit the race. If he decided against that, though, there was plenty of precedence for a candidate falling short in Iowa and making a New Hampshire stand. In 1980, Ronald Reagan spent just 36 hours on the ground in Iowa, even skipping a primary debate. He surged back to win New Hampshire. In 1988, the man who had beaten Reagan in Iowa, George H.W. Bush, followed the same plays. In 1996, Pat Buchanan lost Iowa with 23 percent of the vote, just three points behind Robert J. Dole. He moved on to New Hampshire and won. In 2000 and 2008, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) made early bets to skip Iowa; both years, he won New Hampshire.
Today's expectations of a Trump decline are based less on the history of the primaries and more on Trump's brand. "Never mind the fact that Iowa was not a great fit for Trump," wrote RealClearPolitics's Tom Bevan. "He made the strategic calculation to compete there, and to put his reputation as a winner on the line."
The one-punch theory is just that, a theory. The more worrying Iowa lesson for Trump was that attacks on his record could hold down his vote. Although diehard Trump supporters have written off his old "very pro-choice" views and his musing that Hillary Clinton would be a great secretary of state, the attacks from the new super PAC Our Principles, and the pro-Cruz PAC Keep the Promise — both just rundowns of his liberal answers to questions — seemingly scared off late deciders. In the exit poll, 35 percent of voters who decided before the last month went for Trump. Late deciders broke away from him after that, and voters who decided on the final day put him in a poor third place.
What did that mean for New Hampshire? It wasn't clear. Trump probably suffered from his relative lack of organization, with fewer precinct captains making his case in caucus sites than Cruz or Rubio. Those that did make pro-Trump speeches were amateurs; there was anecdotal evidence that they lost votes.
New Hampshire is nothing like Iowa. Social conservatives matter less, and pulling voters to a traditional vote is easier than getting them to caucus. Although in the final days Iowa had become a three-way race, New Hampshire remained dominated by Trump in the mid-30s, with five Republicans (Rubio, Cruz, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich) clustered in the teens behind him.
"Whatever organization he has in Iowa, it's clearly worse in New Hampshire," Cullen said. "He should be asking his staff what the heck they've been doing for six months. Still, I'd be surprised if Trump were to go from 30 to 15 in a couple of days."