By the numbers, Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton, by a millimeter, won the Iowa caucuses. Still, the race for the top spot was not the big news of the night — or, in Clinton’s case, far into the following day, when the Associated Press finally called the race for her. The real winners were Marco Rubio, with his remarkably strong third-place finish, and Bernie Sanders, with his virtual tie.
In the short term, Donald Trump was the biggest loser — true of any front-runner but even truer of a candidate whose campaign raison d’etre is that he is a winner. Yet in the longer term, if the legacy of Iowa is that it helps propel Rubio to the nomination — and, sure, that’s a big “if” at this point — the even bigger loser could be Clinton, facing a general-election challenger far more daunting than Trump or Cruz.
On the Republican side, the Iowa results put Rubio in a strong position to break away from the crowded middle-of-the-GOP-road pack and claim the mantle of establishment alternative to Cruz and Trump. The best evidence of that new reality? Chris Christie unloading on Rubio the morning after, as “the boy in the bubble . . . who’s constantly scripted and controlled because he can’t answer your questions.”
Not to take away credit from Cruz for being the Trump-slayer, or at least the Trump-wounder. Cruz upended last-minute polling expectations and demonstrated the power of dogged organization. The elaborate network of evangelical Christian support and intensive voter contact and analytics he constructed outdid the swaggering hold-a-rally-and-they-will-caucus approach of Trump.
But in addition to the impressive Cruz ground game, Monday’s results illustrate the limitations of Trump’s appeal. All week in Iowa, I interviewed undecided Republican voters. They were torn — except when it came to Trump. He had been crossed off almost all their lists, as too big a blowhard, too politically inexperienced, too ideologically untrustworthy. Their choices, for the most part, came down to Cruz and Rubio.
That Rubio came within a percentage point of passing Trump is the most significant fact of the night. Rubio’s overperformance is bad news for Christie, Jeb Bush and John Kasich. New Hampshire is not obviously fertile territory for Cruz; it is better suited to Rubio.
There, he can dial down the heavy-handed appeals to evangelical voters and amp up his moving life story. I left the Rubio events I attended in Iowa with a revived sense that Clinton should be very nervous about the prospect of facing him in a general-election campaign.
Assuming, as I continue to do, that she gets there. Still, don’t be fooled by the Clinton campaign crowing about “winning” Iowa. Pause for a caucus reality check here: Judging the victor by differences of tenths of a percentage point is ridiculous when counting delegate numbers, not tens of thousands of individual votes.
A win is a win when you’re talking about Florida’s electoral votes — not when you’re measuring state delegate equivalents. Sanders’s performance offered concrete electoral proof of the power of his anti-establishment appeal and demonstrated his capacity to compete on par with Clinton, whose organization had far more time and resources on the ground in Iowa. This isn’t the blow the state inflicted on Clinton in 2008, but it’s not a victory either.
A functional tie in Iowa and the likelihood of a Sanders win in New Hampshire do not augur the end of Clinton’s candidacy — far from it. This was not the triumphant start Clinton once imagined, but the post-New Hampshire calendar is far more favorable to her demographically and, despite Sanders’s efforts to catch up, organizationally.
Nonetheless, Sanders — how amazing is this? — could turn out to enjoy a huge fundraising advantage. Clinton has more cash on hand, but Sanders’s army of small-dollar donors is a replenishing well on which he can repeatedly draw.
It was telling that Clinton campaign officials diverted her, days before the caucuses, to a fundraising event in Philadelphia — incurring the predictable criticism from Sanders that she was once again raising money from financial interests.
In short, Sanders is not disappearing anytime soon. Trump is not running away with the nomination. For both parties, the Iowa results reinforce the likelihood that both nomination battles will stretch well into the spring, if not beyond.