Iowa Caucus Winners and Losers

Marco Rubio scores a solid third-place nearly matching Trump’s second.

After a year’s worth of speculation and enough hot air to launch a thousand balloons, the people of Iowa have spoken. Their verdict on the 2016 contest is influential, but not determinative. So, without further ado, here are the winners and losers from the 2016 Iowa caucuses.Winners:

Ted Cruz: Iowa was a must-win state for Cruz—and he did precisely that. Despite having trailed Donald Trump in the final round of opinion polls, Cruz’s much vaunted ground game flexed its muscle on Monday night, overwhelming what had appeared to be an enthusiasm gap on behalf of Trump. Cruz will get a boost heading into New Hampshire, where he is already sitting in second place to Trump. Cruz is also well positioned for the SEC primary on March 1, which includes his home state of Texas. A second-place finish (or worse) in Iowa would have dented—or perhaps crippled—Cruz’s bid for the nomination. Exiting Iowa with a win ensures he will be in the race for the long haul.

Marco Rubio: For Rubio, Monday’s contest never was about winning, but whether he would exceed expectations. The benchmark was his number in the RCP Poll Average: 16.9 percent. Anything less than that would generally be viewed as a loss; anything more would be viewed as a victory. Rubio finished with 23.1 percent of the vote, just 1.2 percentage points behind Trump for second place. It was a surprisingly strong showing, and a huge step forward for Rubio’s quest to be the establishment alternative in what for now seems to be a three-person race.

Bernie Sanders: A few short weeks ago no one thought the 74-year-old socialist from Vermont posed any threat to Hillary Clinton. Maybe he’d win New Hampshire, by virtue of being the favorite son in a neighboring state, but that was considered a mere speed bump on the road to Clinton’s coronation. The fact that Sanders virtually tied Clinton in Iowa Monday night will be spun as a victory by his campaign and the media. Until he suffers a decisive defeat by Clinton, which might well come in South Carolina, Sanders is the great progressive hope.

The Anti-Trump Wing of the GOP: Much ink has been spilled over the GOP “establishment” and its mortal opposition to Trump. From the consultant class to the pages of National Review, there has been a concerted effort to take him down a peg by denying him a victory in Iowa. Mission accomplished. Whether that slows his momentum in New Hampshire and beyond remains to be seen, but for now, the anti-Trump forces within the party could take heart that The Donald is not off to the races.


Donald Trump: In the immortal words of Ricky Bobby, if you ain’t first, you’re last. That has been the effective mantra of Trump’s campaign, and for the first time he has to confront the reality that he is, by his own definition, a “loser.” Despite having led in all the polls—as he reminded audiences at every rally—and the performance-art endorsement of Sarah Palin, Trump could not close the deal in Iowa. Never mind the fact that Iowa was not a great fit for Trump; he made the strategic calculation to compete there, and to put his reputation as a winner on the line. His second-place finish in Iowa is not a mortal wound, but it does make a victory in New Hampshire critical for him. There is no telling how Iowa’s vote will resonate in the next few days, but if Trump cannot protect his current 22-point lead in New Hampshire, it will be a devastating blow to his prospects of winning the nomination.

Jeb Bush and Chris Christie: Bush spent millions of dollars in attack ads in Iowa in the hopes of boosting his support, and finished with just 2.8 percent. Christie tried to plant a stake in the ground in Iowa, where he campaigned with Gov. Terry Branstad, and managed just 1.8 percent. With Rubio’s breakout performance Monday night, their only hope of continuing in this campaign is a strong finish seven days from now in New Hampshire. Otherwise, it’s lights out.

Iowa: A lot of pundits speculated that a Trump victory would seriously harm Iowa’s status as a first-in-the-nation contest. After all, if someone like Trump could win the state with big rallies instead of small coffee klatches, then what was the point of these caucuses anyway? But although Trump lost and Cruz, who pursued a much more traditional strategy, won, Iowa was still a loser. Why? Because Cruz won despite being against ethanol (or, more specifically, the renewable fuels mandate). Iowa also lost because the state’s longest-serving governor and most recognizable and respected Republican, Gov. Branstad, urged Iowans to reject Cruz. The Texas senator won with 27.7 percent of the vote, while Christie finished with less than 2 percent. And Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status will still be challenged again anyway.

Martin O’Malley: Even before the Democratic race in Iowa was decided, O’Malley announced that he was suspending his campaign. Getting 0.6 percent support after campaigning for a year tends to have that effect.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing.

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