This morning, the smart money had it that Donald Trump would win Iowa, and Ted Cruz would come in second—but it was possible that Trump could under-perform and Cruz would win. Well, Ted Cruz has won Iowa. Donald Trump is in second, and Marco Rubio is in third. But according to “the narrative,” Donald Trump is tonight’s big loser, and Rubio the upset victor.
The “expectations game” requires performing about as well as the polls said you would perform, or doing better. It is by that standard that Cruz and Rubio won, and Donald Trump swooned. Ann Selzer’s poll had Trump at 28 percent, Cruz at 23 percent, and Rubio at 15 percent. According to the results currently being reported on CNN, Cruz is at 28 percent, Trump is at 24 percent, and Rubio is at 23 percent.
Rubio and Cruz’s numbers are actually pretty close to those shown in the final Iowa poll reported by the Huffington Post, from Emerson College Polling Society, which had Cruz at 26 percent and Rubio at 22 percent. That poll shows support for Trump at 27 percent.
(Also: Let’s not forget that Donald Trump coming in second in the notoriously evangelical Iowa is still a remarkable outcome.)
Mea culpa: I was wrong this morning (thanks a lot Ann Selzer), but I did say this: “Telling voters that the other guy will win unless you show up is a bit more motivating than saying that you already have this in the bag.”
What was wrong with the pre-caucus political analysis was the idea that high turnout would mean Trump was looking stronger. Turnout was high, and Trump didn’t surge. So either Cruz turned a lot more people out than anyone predicted, or a lot of soft “Trump supporters” showed up and were (rather easily) persuaded to switch to Rubio. If it’s the latter, that ought to make Trump worry about New Hampshire—but his lead there, so far, is massive, and primaries are very different from caucuses.
It remains to be seen if I was wrong this evening. It’s still possible that Cruz will win Iowa and Trump will win New Hampshire, respectively, in which case very little has substantively changed about this race.
But Trump wilted. And Rubio’s message, that his third-place finish was actually a sort of victory, really, when you think about it, will be endorsed and amplified by much of the political press over the next week.
N.B.: The Iowa results still aren’t final, though it scarcely matters—even if the final official tallies help Trump and hurt Rubio, the narrative has already been set according to tonight’s preliminary results.