Buckle up: It’s a three-way GOP race

By Josh Kraushaar

 

After the hype, end­less me­dia at­ten­tion, and dom­in­ance in the polls, Don­ald Trump is leav­ing Iowa with a whim­per. The bil­lion­aire busi­ness­man barely hung on to second place, be­hind Ted Cruz and nar­rowly ahead of a sur­ging Marco Ru­bio.  What happened?  Why did all the ex­perts mis­dia­gnose the Trump ef­fect?

From my re­port­ing in the fi­nal week of the cam­paign, the signs of Trump fa­tigue were all over. A rally in Coun­cil Bluffs on Sunday hardly filled the middle school gym­nas­i­um, and drew out-of-state gawkers, mem­or­ab­il­ia seekers, and Iowa voters who were there just to see the spec­tacle. His lead­ing sur­rog­ate, Sarah Pal­in, was re­ceived with si­lence in in­tro­du­cing him Monday in Ce­dar Rap­ids. Empty seats con­tin­ued at his events. He not­ably de­clined to pre­dict vic­tory on Monday’s morn­ing shows.

It was clear that the pub­lic’s ob­ses­sion with polls had ob­scured cent­ral real­it­ies about the tra­ject­ory of the race. Cruz had a well-or­gan­ized ma­chine that was far more valu­able than the hype man­u­fac­tured by Trump. Ru­bio’s as­pir­a­tion­al mes­sage caught on late, as his crowds got big­ger and his sup­port inched up­wards. Trump’s sup­port­ers were ideo­lo­gic­ally all over the map, and many of his col­lege-edu­cated back­ers de­fec­ted to Ru­bio at the last minute. (En­trance polls showed Ru­bio was seen as the most elect­able Re­pub­lic­an, con­trary to all the me­dia polls show­ing Trump with that ad­vant­age.)

Even with Trump’s de­feat, this is now a true three-can­did­ate race. Cruz has ce­men­ted his stand­ing as the can­did­ate backed by the con­ser­vat­ive grass­roots—which should hold him in good stead for a long while. His or­gan­iz­a­tion was the best in the state. He’s now hop­ing to beat ex­pect­a­tions, and more im­port­antly, fo­cus his at­ten­tion on South Car­o­lina, where evan­gel­ic­als play an even lar­ger role in the state’s polit­ics than in Iowa.

“To­night is a vic­tory for the grass­roots and for cour­ageous con­ser­vat­ives across Iowa,” Cruz de­clared in his vic­tory speech. “Iowa has sent no­tice that the GOP nom­in­ee will not be chosen by the me­dia. It will not be chosen by the Wash­ing­ton es­tab­lish­ment. It will not be chosen by the lob­by­ists.”

Ru­bio couldn’t have asked for a much bet­ter res­ult, either. Ex­pect Ru­bio to use his strong fin­ish to con­sol­id­ate sup­port in the cen­ter-right lane in New Hamp­shire. His quick re­ac­tion to the res­ults soun­ded like a vic­tory speech. His 23 per­cent tally far out­dis­tanced his num­bers in the polls, which put him at roughly 15 per­cent. Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich barely re­gistered in Iowa even though the first two spent ample time here in the fi­nal week. (In an Urb­andale pre­cinct once con­sidered a Bush strong­hold, Ru­bio won 152 votes and Bush got 8.) And if Trump con­tin­ues to be a ma­jor pres­ence, he’s poised to hurt Cruz a little more than Ru­bio in the states to come—in par­tic­u­lar, in South Car­o­lina.

In­deed, Trump will still be a ma­jor play­er des­pite his dis­ap­point­ing show­ing. The biggest ques­tion is wheth­er his col­lapse in Iowa will sig­ni­fic­antly de­flate his num­bers else­where.  There’s reas­on to be­lieve that Trump could lose New Hamp­shire, where he cur­rently holds a com­mand­ing lead. As Ru­bio con­sol­id­ates sup­port, Trump loses some of his.

But Trump still has a floor of dis­af­fected work­ing-class voters who won’t be go­ing away. In South­ern states, those voters over­lap sig­ni­fic­antly with Cruz sup­port­ers. Against his in­stincts, he gave a gra­cious, brief con­ces­sion speech, show­ing he can learn from past mis­takes. There was no Howard Dean-scream mo­ment here. Trump still has op­por­tun­it­ies to put vic­tor­ies on the board, but in the short term he’s Ru­bio’s best stra­tegic friend.

Monday night was also a small vic­tory for the much-ma­ligned es­tab­lish­ment wing of the Re­pub­lic­an Party, des­pite Cruz’s clear vic­tory. Ru­bio boost­ers couldn’t have asked for a bet­ter out­come than Trump crum­bling, Ru­bio far ex­ceed­ing ex­pect­a­tions, and Bernie Sanders com­ing out the Demo­crat­ic caucuses with a vir­tu­al tie with Hil­lary Clin­ton. Re­pub­lic­ans are em­barked on a long and con­ten­tious nom­in­a­tion fight, but the odds of the Demo­crats fa­cing a messy ideo­lo­gic­al battle for months is much like­li­er after Monday night’s res­ults.

But the GOP res­ult wasn’t due to the party es­tab­lish­ment’s own ef­forts. The anti-Trump ele­ments with­in the Re­pub­lic­an Party talked a big game, but pro­claimed help­less­ness. They ar­gued that at­tack ads against a Te­flon Trump were point­less, and would back­fire. But when Cruz’s cam­paign and a sep­ar­ate su­per PAC run by former Mitt Rom­ney ad­viser Katie Pack­er went on air in the race’s fi­nal week, his num­bers tumbled. That’s not a co­in­cid­ence.

So, buckle up. We’re all but guar­an­teed a fas­cin­at­ing nom­in­at­ing battle with­in both parties for at least a couple months. And after Monday night, we won’t just be bom­barded with all-Trump, all-the-time. We’ll be hear­ing a lot more about Ted Cruz and Marco Ru­bio too.

 

Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal, and pens the weekly “Against the Grain” column. Kraushaar has held several positions since joining Atlantic Media in 2010, including as managing editor for politics at National Journal, and as executive editor and editor-in-chief of The Hotline.

 

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