After finishing third in Iowa Tuesday night, Marco Rubio has cemented himself as the great hope of the Republican establishment, the one non-outsider candidate who can stop Trump. Rubio has been running third in the national polls for over a month, though, and outside of Trump and Cruz (both of whom finished ahead of him), Rubio had very little competition in Iowa. Nevertheless, Rubio and his backers are working hard to spin their third place finish into a resounding victory.
There's no doubt Rubio had a good day yesterday. For undeclared Republican centrists, Rubio's victory may be enough to push them into his camp, but that remains to be seen. We know Republican financiers want to clear the establishment lane for Rubio, but until Bush and Kasich and Christie drop out, that's unlikely to happen - all of those candidates have enough resources to muddy the waters for several months. Rubio might be ahead in the establishment lane, in other words, but he's far from alone.
Much of the pro-Rubio spin has less to do with the Florida senator and more to do with a desire to purge Trump from the proceess. It's true that Trump underperformed his pre-Iowa polls, but the emerging narrative that Monday marked the end of Trump is pure wish-thinking. It wasn't until the last few weeks that Trump's numbers began to spike in Iowa. For most of the campaign, the conventional wisdom was that Trump was a longshot in Iowa, a state that traditionally favors social conservatives. So historically speaking, a second place finish last night was quite strong for Trump.
That Trump finished as high as he did is remarkable given his lack of a get-out-the-vote operation in Iowa. There's a significant difference between caucuses and primaries; a ground game matters a great deal in Iowa, where people have to show up and work on behalf of their candidate. Trump refused to commit to Iowa both in terms of time and strategy. Iowans reward retail politicians, people who hit the ground, shake the hands, and hold long Q&A's in local restaurants – that's not what Trump does. His is a national campaign that appeals to a mass audience; it's nearly impossible to win in Iowa like that.
All the anti-Trump spin coming out of Iowa is understandable but not at all justifiable. What is clear, though, is that the Republican race is now officially a three-candidate contest. And how it plays out will be determined largely by what the second-tier candidates decide to do. Sam Wang explains it well:
“It is premature to say that Trump is doomed. However, he does look a little less inevitable. It is certainly possible that he can crash from his high position in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and nationally. But I think a bigger risk to him is the possibility that tonight's results will pressure Rubio's lower-tier rivals to get out sooner rather than later. As I've written before, if the field gets down to three candidates after New Hampshire, that opens up a narrow route to stopping Trump.”
Wang gets it right here. But there's no reason to think Trump will crash in New Hampshire or South Carolina or anywhere else – not yet, at least. Despite his loss in Iowa, Trump remains well-positioned moving forward. He leads by double-digits in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, the next three primaries on the calendar. And Trump's national numbers are holding firm.
Bottom line: Trump's popularity may be inflated, but he's still the frontrunner by any measure. Until it's clear that Trump supporters won't show up to the polls in non-caucusing states, there's no reason to think he can't win. Cruz is a disasterous general election candidate, but he's got enough money to hang around until the convention. Among national Republican voters, however, Trump has far more appeal than Cruz.
Again, the big question now is what will Bush, Christie, Kasich and the other candidates do? The longer they're in the race, the more difficult it will be for Rubio to challenge Trump. If they stay in the race well beyond New Hampshire, the smart money is still on Trump.