Ted Cruz Beat Donald Trump in Iowa, But the Real Story is About Marco Rubio

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Tue, Feb 2 - 10:31 am EDT | 2 years ago by
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Ted Cruz edged out Donald Trump for a victory on the Republican side, which is no doubt the biggest story to come out of the Iowa caucus. But for all the hype about newly registered voters and unprecedented turnout allegedly favoring Trump, he underperformed compared to the polls. To Republicans like me who believe that stopping Trump is paramount (and there are many of us), Cruz beating the braggadocious businessman by 6,233 votes was a positive achievement. But the real story might just be what happened down ballot.

Marco Rubio in Iowa
Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images

Marco Rubio came in third place, but he won Iowa’s most populous, business conservative oriented areas. His first place showings in Dallas, Polk, Story, Johnson and Scott counties were enough to place him only 4,284 votes behind Trump. This is a good sign for Rubio, whom the Clinton machine undeniably sees as Hillary’s biggest threat. Whether he can again outperform the polls in New Hampshire, where Trump has an even bigger lead, is an open question. But the nature of his Iowa win is a boost for the young Senator, especially as he works to compete in states such as South Carolina, Nevada and his home turf of Florida.

While Rubio’s performance came as a surprise to many, there were a few polls that detected a last minute surge for the candidate that many of Jeb Bush’s former donors have now coalesced around. As Sarah Rumpf wrote at Opportunity Lives hours prior to the caucus, “After a wild week of news, the final polls released before the Iowa presidential caucuses, the first in the nation, show the race tightening between the three front-runners. One poll even showed a statistical tie between Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).”

The polls in question were conducted by the Atlanta-based Opinion Savvy and Emerson College in Boston. Though they both showed Trump edging out Cruz, those polls captured the last minute surge that propelled Rubio to the point where he nearly pushed the longstanding frontrunner into third place. What fueled this cannot be known for certain but Rubio is increasingly seen as the most electable Republican in establishment circles, even as a Jeb Bush Super PAC spent more than $61 million – much of it allocated for attacks on Rubio. The fact that Rubio did well in the most moderate parts of Iowa while stealing a largely unexpected portion of the evangelical vote from Cruz and Trump certainly makes the case for him as a consensus candidate moving forward.

While it’s true that Iowa is not always a bellwether – John McCain barely competed there in 2008, coming in fourth just ahead of Ron Paul – this year’s contest seems to indicate that Trump’s support, which registers high nationwide, may be thinner than the polls show – even amid record turnout. In 2012, 122,000 Republicans caucused. That number increased to approximately 182,000 this time around. And as he said he would, Cruz rode to victory on the back of the evangelical vote. While Trump earned the somewhat unexpected and high profile endorsement of evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr. just weeks before the caucus, that came with harsh criticism from several faith leaders who pointed out Trump’s lack of solidarity with their values.

“Portraying this lost soul as a brother in Christ is not only doing wrong to Trump himself, it preaches an anti-gospel to all who hear” said Russell Moore, president of the ethics and religious liberty commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Comments such as this likely weighed on the minds of many evangelicals, not to mention Trump’s biblically illiterate “Two Corinthians” comment and his inability to distinguish between a communion plate and an offering plate during an Iowa church service. Unsurprisingly, entrance polls show Cruz performed best among voters who sought a candidate that shares their values.

Ultimately, Rand Paul underperformed compared to what many of his sympathizers, myself included, had hoped from him. He spent a good deal of time leading up to the caucus touting his ground game and ability to turn out college students. Many held out hope that he’d edge out Ben Carson, who seemed per many polls to be fading, but that didn’t quite happen. Carson placed a distant fourth at 9.3% after Rubio’s 23.1%, and Paul came in fifth at 4.5%. While it’s notable that Paul beat out the original Republican establishment choices in Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie, and his top-five finish solidified Iowa as a largely pro-outsider contest, his campaign had hinged a lot of its hopes for future momentum on the caucuses.

It was strong polling in Iowa that put Paul back on the debate stage after failing to qualify for a Fox Business debate in mid-January. His fifth place finish ultimately reflected the polling in question, but his campaign had pushed the narrative that he would shock in Iowa with the help of young voters – and that largely failed to happen. Polls currently show him with 3% in New Hampshire and 2.4% nationwide. It will be extremely notable if Paul can outperform Bush, Kasich and Christie again in the Granite State, but current polling pegs that as unlikely.

Moving forward, all eyes will undoubtedly be on Cruz, Trump and Rubio. Many pundits are predicting a post-Iowa bump for Rubio in New Hampshire as a result of his strong finish. Though Bush, Kasich and Christie are all polling much better in the Granite State than their lackluster performances in Iowa, expect Rubio to emerge as the consensus candidate fairly quickly if none of them are able to convincingly edge him out in New Hampshire. Where the contest will go from here is still an open question but there’s no doubt that Trump underperformed, Rubio overperformed and Cruz still has a lot of work to do if he wants to convince average Republican voters that he’s capable of beating Hillary Clinton. So far, Rubio owns the argument that he’s the best qualified for that crucial task.

Corie Whalen Stephens is a libertarian-conservative activist and writer based in Houston, Texas.

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