DES MOINES, Iowa — Ted Cruz won Iowa. But Marco Rubio gained a leg up in the consolidation wars.
Cruz was under immense pressure to win in Iowa, facing the prospect of possible elimination if he could not win in a deeply religious state that played to his strengths. Rubio deftly played the expectations game, keeping them low all along and then closing strong over the last few weeks.
Now, even with his Iowa prize in hand, Cruz arguably has a harder job in pushing Donald Trump (and, to a lesser extent, Ben Carson) out of the GOP primary’s insurgent wing than Rubio might have in elbowing Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich out of the establishment lane.
Rubio’s rivals — Bush, Christie and Kasich — have one week until the New Hampshire primary to catch Rubio. Even though Rubio is mired in fourth place, in a jumble with four other candidates around 10 percent in the Granite State, his star will now rise.
Rubio “is positioned to best unite the GOP,” said Scott Reed, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s senior political strategist.
Cruz, meanwhile, will have to deal in New Hampshire with Trump, who leads the polling in that state by 20 points. What’s unknowable is how Trump’s loss in Iowa — despite his lead in the polls here — and his reaction to the disappointing result will affect the level of his support.
New Hampshire operatives said that Trump lacks organization in the Granite State, but that this matters less in a primary state than it did in Iowa, where voters had to show up at 7 p.m. and spend roughly an hour in their caucus meetings.
The New Hampshire primary will, among other things, be either a revival for Trump’s candidacy or a dagger that proves he has been a hot air balloon all along, full of empty air and blown high into the stratosphere by the legitimate anger of the electorate, but ultimately not solid enough to convince very many people to hop onboard.
After New Hampshire, said Republican operative Henry Barbour, who talks to and speaks with many GOP donors, “the consolidation of the field will begin in earnest.”
Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio talk after a presidential primary debate in January in Des Moines. (Photo: Chris Carlson/AP)
Trump was left to wonder how much his decision to sit out last week’s final debate before the caucuses hurt his standing among Iowa voters. Entrance polls showed that 45 percent of caucus-goers made up their minds about who to support only in the past week, and most of those voters went for Cruz or Rubio.
On Monday night, Trump aides were echoing their boss’s four-minute concession speech, trying to cast a second-place finish in Iowa as a significant achievement for a candidate who had never before run for office and was dismissed by the party’s establishment as a joke.
“He came from nowhere and has driven the ideas in this race,” insisted one aide, who declined to be named. The aide pushed back against the idea of New Hampshire being a “must-win” for Trump, pointing to big crowds he’d attracted in South Carolina and Super Tuesday states like Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. The Trump campaign views those states as better possibilities for Trump than Iowa, where aides believe he was ultimately felled by his inability to win over more evangelical and social conservative voters.
Cruz is now on track to be a finalist in the GOP primary contest, thanks to record high turnout here in Iowa. A total of almost 187,000 Republicans voted in caucuses, up from the previous record that was set just four years ago in 2012, when 121,000 Iowans caucused.
Even though Cruz said Monday night that in New Hampshire he will “continue to campaign the same way, sitting down person-to-person, leader-to-leader, VFW Hall to Dunkin’ Donuts,” his Iowa win was driven as much by precision and discipline as it was by retail politicking.
The massive surge of voters was augmented by the Cruz campaign’s surgically effective use of field organizing combined with data and analytics, tools used by President Obama’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012 to identify potential supporters and make sure they showed up to vote.
Cruz started with an advantage in that his natural constituency — social and religious conservatives in Iowa — was made up of well-drilled, nearly professional caucus-goers. But taking no chances, Cruz recruited 12,000 volunteers, 15,000 precinct captains, and had a person lined up to speak for Cruz — the campaign claimed — at each of the state’s 1,681 caucus sites. About 8,000 of those 12,000 volunteers were from out-of-state. In fact, it was hard to find Iowa voters at Cruz’s victory party at the state fairgrounds.
Cruz data and analytics chief Chris Wilson also said he was given a significant chunk of the campaign’s budget to build out detailed voter profiles that helped the campaign identify the issues that mattered to individual voters, so that the campaign could reach out to as many as possible on specific issues that would most motivate them to caucus for Cruz.
Wilson said that the Cruz campaign had 167 voter “universes” that they delivered specialized messages to, and he claimed that by contrast the Romney campaign in 2012 had only two. Former Romney officials disputed that number, but one acknowledged that Cruz’s campaign — run by Missouri operative Jeff Roe — was breaking new ground on this front.
Cruz’s campaign even identified Iowa voters who were most highly motivated by the potential legalization of fireworks, which are currently illegal in the Hawkeye State, and then messaged to them on that issue. The Cruz campaign identified 9,131 Iowans who were choosing between Cruz and Trump, Wilson said, and sought to peel them away from the businessman candidate.
Wilson said that since early in the primary, Cruz “made sure I understood we were not going to be outperformed on analytics and digital.“
Trump’s support, meanwhile, turned out to be more flimsy than his polling numbers suggested. It’s possible this was because potential supporters who talked to pollsters did not show up, or because some who had considered voting for him changed their minds in the end.
As late as Monday, the Cruz campaign wasn’t sure what to expect. Despite confidently predicting an Iowa win in recent days, Cruz spokesman Rick Tyler told Yahoo News that on Monday afternoon, as the start of the caucuses approached, he had become nervous.
But as the returns rolled in, and Cruz was declared the winner, Tyler and the others on team Cruz breathed a sigh of relief. And so too did many in the Republican Party, as well as probably some outside it, as they witnessed Trump’s Iowa demise.
In a clear dig at Trump, Cruz called his win “a victory for every American who understands that after we survive eight long years of the Obama presidency, that no one personality can right the wrongs done by Washington.”
Trump aides declined to say if they will change anything about Trump’s strategy going forward. The candidate has been criticized for holding big rallies instead of engaging in the more intimate one-on-one kind of retail politicking that is typically rewarded in the early states. But the aide admitted there would be some analysis of “what to do better.”
“We’re talking about Donald Trump. Of course, there will be.”