Imagine trying to explain America’s presidential selection process to an extraterrestrial.
The nation’s two major political parties entrust Iowa with beginning the elimination process – that one Midwestern state representing just 1 percent of the nation’s population, with an electorate not reflective of America writ large (Iowa’s population is whiter, more Protestant and decidedly less black and Hispanic than the rest of the country).
Moreover, it’s not much of a political bellwether. Jimmy Carter won the Democratic caucuses in 1976, as did Barack Obama in 2008. In modern times, George W. Bush is the lone Republican to parlay a caucus win into the presidency.
Yet here we are in 2016, once again giving this under-populated state an oversized role in the nation’s future.
Some observations about what transpired in Iowa, on the Republican side, on Monday night:
Mister Trump, Meet Mister Tyson. The former boxer is credited with saying that “everyone has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth.”
On Monday night, Trump was on the receiving end of said punch.
Yes, the turnout turned out to be a record high, as Trump had promised. But not all the newcomers flocked in his direction, as he also prophesized.
According to Fox News entrance polls, the late-deciders broke first to Marco Rubio, then Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and then Trump – one reason why Rubio finished a close third (much closer than expected) to the flamboyant developer.
One way to look at Trump’s bad night: going into the caucuses, Trump stood at 28.6 percent in the Real Clear Politics Average. He finished with only 24 percent on Caucus night.
Cruz Was Everything – But Likeable. Cruz organized Iowa like few Republicans ever have – 12,000 volunteers, 1,000 precincts, a pair of old college dorms rented and renamed “Camp Cruz” to house that army. Unlike Trump’s calculation that star power was an irresistible force, it was sweat equity that paid off: Cruz bumped his RCP average by about 4 points.
Credit Cruz with standing his ground: he didn’t back down on opposing the ethanol subsidy. He didn’t deviate from his game plan of courting evangelicals.
However, the game plan wasn’t glitch-free: three out of five GOP caucus-goers identified as evangelicals in this year’s Republican caucuses – a higher percentage than in 2012. Yet, per the Fox News entrance polls, this portion of the vote didn’t break as heavily for Cruz as anticipated.
This suggests a core problem for Cruz moving forward: he’s bright, organized and a methodical strategist. But he’s just not likeable beyond that base of religious and constitutional voters. He’ll be hard-pressed to finish second in New Hampshire, where the electorate is less devoutly Protestant and less conservative – and Trump may be particularly vengeful.
The Rubio Expectations Game. One other way the Iowa night seem alien to alien visitors: the ability for a non-winner to claim victory. And In 2016, that’s Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whose surprisingly strong third-place finish confirms him as the biggest fish in the so-called “establishment lane.”
Rubio was a non-factor in Iowa as recently as a few weeks ago. But then he worked the state in person, invested heavily late in television on the eve of the vote, and profited handsomely from the one-fifth of the GOP voters for whom electability was the prime concern.
Rubio won the expectations game. Let’s see if that translates into votes in New Hampshire and, more immediately, an influx of cash as donors contrast his over-performance to the anemic showing of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (at 2 percent, just a percentage point behind Jeb Bush).
Left Behind. Dr. Ben Carson finished fourth – a better showing than he might have anticipated a month ago when his campaign cratered.
Carson’s free-fall led to Cruz’s December surge; Carson’s slight recovery on Monday night – his core being evangelicals – likely kept Cruz from a bigger win.
To the adage that elections reflect change and turnover: Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum won the last two GOP caucuses. On Monday night, neither cracked 3 percent. Huckabee quickly put his campaign on hiatus; Santorum likely won’t be far behind.
Change Gives Us . . . Continuity. For all the talk these past few months of how Iowa would be an opening salvo in a Trump-fueled revolution, reality proved otherwise.
Yes, a historically large GOP electorate struck a blow against Washington experience: Cruz, Trump and Rubio combined have all of ten years in federal government between them; they cornered three-fourth of Iowa’s vote.
However, the Iowa results were also a vote for more of the same.
Since 1988, the GOP caucuses have followed a familiar pattern – Iowans siding with a Republican who embodied the concept of “one of us.” Bob Dole, a son of Kansas, was a fellow Midwesterner. He was Iowa’s winner in 1988 and 1996. George W. Bush, Huckabee and Santorum all ran campaigns in which their personal faith and public policy ideas were DNA strands.
Given the choice of voting for Cruz, who worked the evangelic crowd in no uncertain terms (“Father God, Please . . . Awaken the Body of Christ”), Iowans went with the purer social conservative – not the wealthy guy from New York running as a born-again conservative, trying to win over the Midwestern crowd with his celebrity persona and flashy plane.
In the end, Cruz simply out-organized and out-thought Trump. Which is why Trump Fever is over – at least, until next week’s vote.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, where he analyzes California and national politics. He also blogs daily on the 2016 election at www.adayattheracesblog.com. Follow him on Twitter @hooverwhalen.