After being bombarded with advertisements and door-to-door canvassing, the people of Iowa finally got to cast the first votes in the process to find America’s next president. For all the pre-caucus hype, Iowans didn’t disappoint.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton edged out Bernie Sanders (who cleaned up last night in New Hampshire) by less than half a percent. Sanders outperformed expectations in Iowa, winning exactly the demographics he needed to, namely young people, who voted for him 85-15.
But it’s on the Republican side where things got really interesting. Donald Trump was expected to win, with Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio trailing. Instead, Cruz, playing off of the state’s Evangelical population, rallied to victory, with Trump and Rubio all but tied for second.
While Trump underperformed, the real winner of the night was Rubio, who outperformed his polls by several percent. He also won counties which are good cross-sections of the average Republican electorate, such as those around Des Moines. Cruz won because of Iowa’s demographics; similar conservatives Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee won Iowa in recent years, and neither had a real shot at the presidency.
This catalyst for a Rubio surge was tempered by an awful debate performance on Saturday. Rubio’s biggest problem is that he seems rehearsed. On Saturday, this became painfully obvious. After being called out by Chris Christie for being inexperienced and a Washington chum that memorizes 25-second sound bytes, Rubio proceeded to repeat the same spiel three times. I don’t know if he’ll ever talk about “dispel[ling] the fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing” ever again.
Rubio should’ve known it would be a long night when CNN exit polls indicated two-thirds of voters found the recent debate important in their decisions. Rubio, projected to place a strong second after Trump, finished 5th (5th!) behind even Cruz, for whom New Hampshire was but an afterthought. Trump won handily, with Ohio Governor John Kasich in 2nd.
The party establishment wants to crystallize around a candidate, so it can pivot to focusing on Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump is Donald Trump and Ted Cruz is seemingly too conservative. That leaves Rubio and the two governors. I don’t give Jeb Bush much of a chance, but Kasich’s performance puts him squarely in the discussion. That being said, he is not polling particularly well outside of New Hampshire. Kasich is trying to run as the moderate of a really conservative group of candidates, a tune that was well received in New Hampshire, but won’t be as the race heads to South Carolina and Nevada.
Marco Rubio has, as I have said for months, the hallmarks of a great candidate. Unfortunately, he just keeps shooting himself in the foot. With Kasich’s strong New Hampshire performance, Rubio’s path to the White House, and the party’s consensus, just got a little bit murkier. My money is still on him, but my money was also on the Carolina Panthers.