The most self-assured candidate in the 2016 race failed to win the Iowa Republican caucus Monday night. But as unexpected a setback a silver medal is for Donald Trump — a man who loves seeing his name emblazoned in gold — he can take solace: his immense imprint on the election promises to be long-lasting.
Trump lost to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), 28 to 24 percent, but his politics have prevailed. Republican caucus-goers elevated the most conservative candidate in the race, in Cruz, and the brashest, in Trump. That portends both a massive headache for the Republican Party, which faces the very real prospect of a fissure in the months ahead, and for voters across the country, who now must soberly envision life under Trump’s nativist policies or a slightly diluted variation of them.
Things were even more muddied on the Democratic side of the aisle, where former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton clung to a marginal lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), with just few votes remaining to be counted. If she ultimately emerges victorious, and based on the critical delegate count it appears she will, it will be something of a Pyrrhic victory. Rather than show herself to be the inevitable nominee on Monday — blessed with a bloodless and quick primary fight — she struggled to handle a man she once led by more than 50 points in the polls.
Now, Clinton faces the prospect of an upcoming loss in New Hampshire, where Sanders enjoys a healthy lead, and a drawn-out fight for the nomination. Whoever wins will inevitably be forced to empty his or her copious war chest and resort to more personal attacks in the process. Even before Sanders spoke Monday night, his supporters were booing Clinton and calling her a liar when she appeared on the TV screens. There was a huge cheer when the feed froze.
Iowa, in short, was not so much the first domino of the campaign season as it was a warning shot for each political party. Existential questions and messy disputes lie ahead.
There are silver linings. Democrats faced a prolonged primary fight in 2008 that was supposed to have weakened the eventual nominee. Instead, it helped then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) hone his skills as a candidate and catapulted him to the presidency.
On the Republican side, it is objectively more difficult to see how things move smoothly from here. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) emerged with 23 percent of the vote, and seemed to firmly establish himself as the establishment-friendly alternative to Trump and Cruz.
“So this is the moment they said would never happen,” he triumphantly declared shortly after the results were announced, even those results showed he had finished third.
But a fuller look at the data suggests that Rubio has his work cut out for him. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson earned 9 percent of the vote. Collectively, his, Cruz’s and Trump’s totals suggest that a huge swath of Republican primary voters are committed to supporting either a Washington outsider or the most hated man who currently works there.
Rubio and his boosters argued, well before the final results were clear, that his third-place showing amounted to a win. And he does seem poised to attract the support of establishment interests in the party — Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), for one, will reportedly endorse him — based on Monday night’s results. But none of the upcoming primaries clearly favor Rubio over Cruz or Trump. And he also trails Cruz badly in cash on hand: Cruz’s campaign has $18.7 million and his supportive outside groups have $32.2 million, while Rubio and his supportive groups have $10.4 million and $14.3 million, respectively.
There’s also the question of how, exactly, Trump will react if he continues to lose. The real estate tycoon, who has insulted every fellow candidate and virtually all demographic groups during his campaign, is not easily humbled, though his remarks on Monday night contained none of his trademark bravado.
But if history is any guide, Trump’s bite will return once he touches down in New Hampshire on Tuesday. In the lead-up to Iowa, he attacked Cruz for having been born in Canada and questioned whether he could legally be elected president. And though that strategy hasn’t paid off, it showed a willingness to cast aside formalities when it comes to campaigning. His attacks on Rubio seem likely to focus on immigration; Trump has called for a roundup of undocumented immigrants and a wall to be built on the nation’s southern border.
Cruz isn’t a moderate alternative to all that.
He has already criticized Rubio for his past support of comprehensive immigration reform, he was the architect of the 2013 government shutdown, and he has advocated a religious test for all incoming Syrian refugees — a step short of Trump’s call for an outright ban on Muslims entering the country. Many of his Senate colleagues loathe him. But has a strident following and a robust and savvy campaign apparatus that paid off in Iowa.
Mike Kelly, who drives a shuttle bus for a Des Moines hotel, said he’s never seen a campaign operation as intense as Cruz’s. The senator’s supporters have woken him up in the morning by knocking on his door, approached him on the street and called him at least 20 times in the past week, he said. When he goes to the grocery store, he’s seen them sitting in their car taking eating lunch. When he looks out the window, there they are, with clipboards and pens.
“I don’t know if that’s a religious aspect or what,” he said. “It’s the kind of people where you can get them pumped, but then they’ll go out and foot-soldier for you.”
Note to our readers: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.