There's been a lot of talk over the past several months that the Republican primary race was being run on two "lanes," the establishment lane and the outsider lane. In the beginning, everyone assumed that the outsider lane would taken by Donald Trump or Ted Cruz while the establishment lane would be taken by one of the more mainstream candidates like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or John Kasich once one of them caught on. In recent weeks, we've all been speculating that the establishment was going to have to choose between Trump or Cruz because none of the others were catching on at all. This presented a terrible dilemma for the establishment since they cannot stand either one.
Last night, Iowa showed that the two lanes divided neatly between the hard charging culture warrior Cruz and the bright young mainstream conservative Rubio just as everyone might have predicted a few months ago. The culture warrior got the most votes, as they often do in Iowa, but the establishment favorite did very well too and did it with a late surge that always thrills the political class.
Unfortunately for those two, it turns out there's actually a third lane: the Trump lane. He didn't win it, as the polls had predicted, but he did come in second. So it looks like the GOP's got a three man race on its hands. And it's fair to guess it's going to get very, very ugly as they go after each other with everything they've got.
Cruz gave the most unctuous victory speech in Iowa caucus history, going on and on for what seemed like hours hitting every Tea party conservative talking point and sounding at times as if he were leading a revival meeting. His crowd seemed to like it. But if a national audience tuned in to hear him last night for the first time he didn't do himself any favors. He could win the whole thing however if he plays his cards just right, especially if this three-man race goes on through the whole primary season. He's got plenty of money and if the hardcore conservatives show their loyalty to a fellow movement soldier elsewhere he could conceivably get a plurality of the delegates when all is said and done. (Keep in mind that the Republicans changed most of their primaries to proportional voting after 2012.)
Unfortunately, he is going to be facing a very angry Donald Trump, who is not known for his restraint, along with a newly energized political establishment that loathes Cruz with a passion so strong you have to wonder what it is he really did to them. It's hard to imagine him surviving that, but he's a flinty right-winger who might be able to pull it off.
Needless to say, it's likely that Rubio is going into New Hampshire with a big boost and will be gathering endorsements by the boatload if he can emerge from the establishment lane pile-up where a bunch of candidates are stuck at 10 percent or so. The only complication is that his surge seems to have come from evangelicals who turned out in big numbers yesterday, and that's not a huge factor in New Hampshire. Still, it's always helpful to be the big Iowa surprise going into New Hampshire, and Rubio's plenty wingnutty enough in other ways to please those voters if he can get their attention.
But what of The Donald? Well, there's no reason to think his lead in New Hampshire is in any danger, although anything can happen. It's possible the bubble has finally burst and the party will wake up and realize they've been in some sort of a fever dream, and he'll fade away. He came dangerously close to coming in third in Iowa after which it would have been very hard to describe him as anything but a "loser." He certainly won't make the mistake of skipping any further debates.
Sadly, some of his most fervent believers are now becoming distraught that America might not actually be made great again:
She has a right to be disappointed. Trump promised so many victories they'd be begging him to stop winning so much. Imagine how let down she must feel with a 2nd place after that.
On the Republican side, Trump and Cruz switched places relative to polls. To compare the final polls with tonight’s counts, Trump underperformed by 26.5-24.3=2.2%, Cruz overperformed by 27.7-23.5=4.2%, and Rubio overperformed by 23.1-18.0=5.1%. The late swing for Rubio was visible in the final days of polling. All of this is well within the range of normal polling error in primaries.
It is highly 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. In short, tonight kept Marco Rubio’s chances alive.
This could take a while, though, because the problem going forward is money. Not the lack of it, as it used to be, but the fact that there's just so much of it. Normally, the "winnowing" would be happening rapidly as candidates just could no longer afford to stay on the trail, much less pay for ads and staffers. Even if Rubio manages to do well enough to persuade the rest of the establishment pack to get out of the way, all three candidates can keep going indefinitely if they keep winning. And they could. With three candidates in three different lanes it's not impossible that they could all take states over the next few months.
It's fair to guess, however, that Trump is not going to be willing to grind out a win by adding up his delegates state by state. It just doesn't seem like his style. If he starts losing, it's hard to imagine he'll stick around for a long slog. His deflated concession speech last night proved that he's not someone who is energized by being an underdog.
But who knows? Iowa is hardly predictive of winners. Just ask Presidents Huckabee and Santorum. Neither is New Hampshire, for that matter. The good news is that actual voters are now in the mix, giving the rest of us a real sense of what voters, in certain places anyway, are thinking about all these people. And it should be good news for both parties that turnout in Iowa was excellent, which hopefully presages some enthusiastic civic participation across the nation. It's apathy that usually bring the worst results in politics.