Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s traditional campaign can win. Donald Trump is not unbeatable. And Florida Sen. Marco Rubio topped expectations to become a serious banner bearer for the Establishment.
But this is still the year of the outsider.
Those are the lessons of Monday night’s Iowa caucuses.
More than 50 percent of Iowans voted for one of the two top anti-Establishment candidates, proving the outsider-dominated first stage of the contest translates to real votes of support. Cruz fought back from a rough few weeks to win with 28 percent of the vote, and Trump underperformed with a second place finish at 24 percent.
At the same time, the Hawkeye State selected the champion of Establishment in Rubio, who notched a surprisingly high 23 percent, just 1 percent shy of Trump.
In the wake of the results, the field will now narrow, and the top-tier contenders will ratchet up their attacks on each other. Tuesday begins phase two of what promises to be a long and bruising contest. Here are the top finishers in Iowa and what their place means for their immediate future.
Ted Cruz Proves His Tenacity and Wins
The traditional campaign is alive and well. By virtue of his Iowa win, Cruz has proven that boots on the ground, flyers in the mail, and ads on the air are still essential elements to winning the race in 2016.
In the final days leading up to the Iowa contest, the Cruz campaign boasted 12,000 volunteers, making 20,000 phone calls and knocking on 2,000 doors a day. The Cruz Iowa showing provides a window into how the Texas senator’s well-funded and well-organized operation can defeat Trump or an Establishment champion on Super Tuesday and the ensuing large, multi-state contests.
Ted Cruz Thanks Iowa for the Victory[lz_jwplayer video=”MBHZXHyV” ads=”false”]
Cruz, beset for weeks by attacks from Trump, will earn a fresh injection of momentum as the winner of the Hawkeye State. That momentum will be key to keeping Cruz in the top tier of contention in New Hampshire and South Carolina before he reaches Super Tuesday, where he could sweep the eight large, evangelical-heavy Southern states that host primaries that day.
In the short run, Cruz will need to play the New Hampshire expectations game carefully. Trump maintains a more than 20-percent lead over Cruz in the most recent New Hampshire poll from the University of Massachusetts Lowell. In the same poll, Cruz sits at second with 12 percent. That leaves a hill to climb, and Cruz will have to share rising fortunes in New Hampshire with Rubio.
But Cruz proved his campaign is a powerhouse, and he is a resilient candidate. The Texas senator is now a serious challenger to the front-runner status of Trump.
Rubio Takes Establishment Banner
The next-best momentum generating night after Cruz clearly went to Rubio. The Florida senator firmly grasped the mantle of Establishment champion with a surprisingly strong Iowa finish. The most recent polls of the contest in the Hawkeye State had put Rubio between 15 and 17 percent. Rubio finished with 23 percent, just 1 percent behind Trump.
In his caucus-night speech, Rubio sounded as if he’d won the contest rather than merely clinching the bronze medal.
“They said it couldn’t be done,” Rubio said in his speech to supporters in Des Moines. “(But) I will be our nominee thanks to what you have done in this great state.”
Rubio, who also announced Monday night he would secure the endorsement of South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott in that key early state, will now look to rise to contention with Trump in New Hampshire.
Rubio Celebrates Third Place Finish[lz_jwplayer video=”vsejH4ka” ads=”false”]
Rubio destroyed his Establishment rivals, beating former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush by 20 percent and both Ohio Gov. John Kasich and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie by 21 percent.
Those rivals have put their eggs predominantly in the New Hampshire basket. But a commanding Rubio finish above the trio of Establishment rivals in the Granite State would put massive pressure on them to exit the race in order to allow the Establishment world to coalesce around one candidate.
Rubio will surely have the second best day-after in the media, despite coming in third.
Trump Enters the Danger Zone
Trump will now enter the most dangerous phase of his campaign and will be at risk of losing the shroud of invincibility that has cloaked his campaign since late July 2015.
In the game of expectations, Trump overplayed his hand in the Hawkeye State. Trump never claimed he was certain to win, but he repeatedly hinted he was confident of a first-place finish.
Trump Addresses His Supporters[lz_jwplayer video=”LVeq7PLk” ads=”false”]
To maintain his front-runner status in the contest, Trump will need to seize the media’s attention from the ascendant senators in the next several days and protect his still-massive lead in New Hampshire headed into the its primary next week.
A Trump win there will reignite his claim of inevitability.
But Trump should be most concerned about the power of Cruz’s field operation. Building an army on the ground takes a campaign months of investment and organization. It is too late for Trump to marshal the resources to develop a ground force of his own, and Trump will have to run up big leads to make up for his lack of organization in future contests.
Trump was both defiant and magnanimous in his caucus-concession speech. Sensing the danger in the loss, Trump downplayed his second-place finish, saying trusted adviser had cautioned him to stay away from the state in the first place.
The mogul remains the front-runner, but that position will enter perilous territory Tuesday morning, when he and the other candidates arrive in New Hampshire.