Some in the media are openly celebrating Donald Trump’s loss in Iowa, others are doing it more subtly.
But those who believe his candidacy has crashed and burned are making a mistake, succumbing to the heady Iowa elixir that makes caucus winners look unstoppable—usually for eight days or so.
Trump made his share of mistakes, chief among them blowing off the Fox News debate. I talked to a few Iowans during my week in Des Moines who felt aggravated by the move. But more important, he ceded the stage to Ted Cruz, who won Monday night, and Marco Rubio, whose late surge defied the polls and almost pushed him past Trump into second place. Trump’s “genius” move played well with the press, but in Ames and Cedar Rapids, not so much.
Still, Trump’s 4-point loss to the Texas senator suggests he probably would have lost the caucuses even if he hadn’t picked a fight with Fox and sidestepped the debate. Iowa was never a great fit for him, despite his inroads with the evangelical voters who dominate the GOP caucuses.
And yes, the ground game does matter. Trump never seemed all in on building the kind of sophisticated machinery that Cruz used to turn out the largest vote for a Republican in caucus history.
Still, a billionaire who had never run for anything managed to finish second in Iowa’s complicated caucuses, way ahead of several governors, not a bad first-time showing. (I wrote that sentence before Trump tweeted that the media were failing to give him his due.)
There was an unmistakable sense of vindication in the media reports that declared the man who talks so much about winning is now a loser. New York’s Daily News was the most unabashed, with its “DEAD CLOWN WALKING” headline.
For more than seven months, media skeptics warned that Trump was a sideshow, that he would implode, that doom was always just around the corner. Conservative commentators at Fox, National Review and elsewhere disparaged him as a fake right-winger.
In recent weeks, as polls had him pulling ahead of Cruz in Iowa, many pundits started hedging their bets, acknowledging that Trump could run the table and win the nomination. But the caucuses allowed them to slip back into told-you-so mode.
Of course, Cruz deserves credit for executing a flawless strategy, and especially for parrying Trump’s attacks as a nasty guy and Canadian interloper. Rubio deserves credit for threading the needle by appealing to the party’s establishment and tea party wings—and clobbering his mentor, Jeb Bush, who wasted tens of millions of dollars in Iowa.
Still, Cruz has to show that unlike the last two caucus winners, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, he can retrofit a made-for-Iowa vehicle to zoom to victory in bigger and more diverse states. And whatever bump Cruz gets from Iowa, Trump has big leads in New Hampshire and South Carolina, at least for now. And he doesn’t have to worry about donors.
So now we find out whether Trump can take a punch. A little dose of humility might be good for him. When I watched him say he was a little nervous in a Monday-morning interview, I remember thinking that the bombastic candidate was showing a side of himself that might appeal to voters turned off by the endless bragging.
In politics as in life, Americans like someone who can pick himself off the canvas. Ronald Reagan lost Iowa, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush lost New Hampshire, and all went on to win the White House. The press ought to be careful about once again writing Trump’s obituary.