The Iowa Caucuses were that rare thing in this already overlong 2016 presidential race: an actual event, not a piece of "narrative" ready to be spun and re-spun by the media and candidates. After Monday night's results, we know a bit more about the campaign and the shape it's taking. Donald Trump's support, until now, has been purely the speculative stuff of polls—his second-place finish, just a point ahead of Marco Rubio (24 to 23 percent), made him look suddenly vulnerable, those much-touted numbers a mirage.
Ted Cruz, meanwhile, is sitting pretty, for the moment holding both a lead in delegates and bragging rights after his unambiguous victory, with 28 percent of the vote. More than ever, Cruz seems like a plausible presidential candidate, despite a reputation as a strident, unpopular lone wolf. Cruz makes himself out to be an outsider, which isn't unusual—everyone in the GOP ostensibly hates beltway elites who are theoretically the source of all the country's problems. But Cruz really is outside the usual order of things; he's hated even by other Republicans, which in theory makes his path to the presidency more difficult.
Cruz won Iowa the old-fashioned way: an aggressive and efficient get-out-the-vote effort, strong support among the state's evangelicals, and grassroots bona fides. It's telling that when Trump launched attacks against Cruz back in December, conservative talk radio hosts jumped to the senator's defense.
That abrasive iconoclasts would dominate Iowa wasn't exactly news, which is why the biggest story of the night was probably Rubio's 23 percent—just one point behind Trump, and eight points higher than his results in the most recent Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll. For a long time the Rubio campaign has been pushing the idea that a "strong" third-place finish would be a good result for the candidate, but this was a stronger third than anyone was expecting—he didn't beat Cruz or Trump, but he destroyed all the other mainstream conservative candidates, including his former mentor Jeb! Bush, who earned a paltry 2.8 percent of the vote despite his massive campaign war chest. Rubio pulled off that trick everyone learns at his or her first job: He under-promised and over-delivered.
"This is the moment they said would never happen," Rubio said in a prepared speech at his post-caucus event at the Downtown Des Moines Marriott. "For months they told us we had no chance. Because we offered too much optimism in a time of anger, we had no chance." He was giving himself a whole lot of credit for coming in third, but it was time to cash in a few months worth of humility for a night's worth of bluster.
The mood in the Rubio camp had unmistakably shifted by Monday night. Earlier that day, I'd been in Rubio's campaign headquarters and seen Rubio's battalion of campaign volunteers in the middle of their final push. They were embodying Rubio's trademark positivity, always chipper, smiles plastered on—but not a muscle in their bodies seemed relaxed.
Just a few hours later, his staff looked flush with victory, despite the third-place finish. People who had tried not to make eye contact with me while hunched over desks earlier in the day making phone calls now recognized me, and high-fived me on the way out of the Marriott.
A 34-year-old supporter named Randy from Des Moines was just as relieved as Rubio's staff. "I was speaking to my wife before I came down tonight and I said if Marco could finish in the 20s, I think that's a successful Iowa. Ted and Donald have both spent more time here."
"I think it gives him a lot of momentum moving into New Hampshire," Randy added.
He'll need it. Trump has a commanding lead in New Hampshire polls, though obviously none of them reflect how voters' opinions may have shifted after seeing the Iowa results. At last count, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Jeb! Bush, and Marco Rubio were all hovering around 10 percent. The message Rubio's camp will hope to spread in the coming week is that his caucus showing indicates he's got more juice than Kasich or Jeb! and their supporters should hop aboard the bandwagon in order to defeat Cruz and Trump—both of whom are feared and loathed by the GOP establishment.
Rubio's political allies didn't waste any time trumpeting this talking point after his third-place "victory." Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, for instance, said, "Tonight's a clear message: If you're another candidate and you want to win in November, you should get behind Marco Rubio."
Rubio may have gotten a boost from a perhaps underappreciated segment of Iowa voters: Republicans who hate Trump so much they don't care who's at the top of the ticket as long as it's not the bully billionaire.
"Cruz and Rubio are pretty much the same person, and I'm pretty happy," said Dustin Hetter, a Rubio supporter who attended Rubio's post-caucus rally.
"At least he's not Trump," said Dustin's wife Amanda.
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