Wall Street Journal (Opinion)
By Jason Riley
February 3, 2016
So, it turns out that you can’t call Iowa voters “stupid,” skip a debate in Des Moines because you don’t like the moderators and still expect to prevail in the state’s caucuses. Who knew?
Donald Trump’s loss Monday night, which is far more consequential than Ted Cruz’s victory, could mean a return to Republican normalcy in an election year that has been almost freakish. Mr. Trump’s poll numbers have soared above his rivals’ for months—the Real Clear Politics average puts him at nearly 36%, while none of the other GOP candidates is above 20%—yet he lost handily in the state where the first votes were cast.
Thanks to the voters of Iowa, conservatives awoke Tuesday morning to a political world that made sense again for the first time since Mr. Trump’s rise began last summer. They learned that bluster and incivility have not become political virtues. Well-attended rallies are no substitute for traditional campaigning. Sarah Palin is no GOP kingmaker. And religious conservatives—real ones in the mold of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum—still win the Iowa caucuses. Hawkeye voters find Mr. Trump entertaining but not very presidential. Many Republicans haven’t made up their minds, and among those tasked with casting the first votes, Donald Trump ranked closer to the third-place candidate, Marco Rubio, than the winner.
According to CNN entrance surveys of Republican voters, evangelicals made up 64% of the Iowa electorate, and 34% of them went for Mr. Cruz, which is the main reason he won. Perhaps more impressive, however, was Mr. Rubio’s strong showing in a state that doesn’t play to his strengths. He wasn’t supposed to win, only to exceed expectations, and he did. Mr. Rubio finished third, one point behind Mr. Trump and five points behind the winner. Mr. Trump performed best among caucusgoers who prefer someone who “tells it like it is,” while Mr. Rubio won voters who said electability is their top candidate quality. Put another way, Trump supporters want to make a point. Rubio supporters want to elect a president.
Mr. Trump’s defeat is a serious blow because a large part of his appeal is that he doesn’t lose. Iowa Republicans performed a public service in puncturing the media-generated Trump hype, and future coverage of the candidate ought to be more balanced. Heading into the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary, Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio both have the momentum. But Mr. Rubio is in a better position to win over eclectic Granite State voters, who are less enamored of Mr. Cruz’s social conservatism than are Iowans. And to the extent that Mr. Trump remains a factor in the coming contests, he probably damages Mr. Cruz more than Mr. Rubio.
The Republican field is poised to shrink significantly after New Hampshire, but there is still a chance that the number of Democrats running, perhaps in the guise of an independent, could expand. Hillary Clinton’s narrow victory in Iowa did nothing to assuage liberals who are concerned about her weaknesses as the would-be nominee. Mrs. Clinton is not worried about losing the nomination to Bernie Sanders. She’s worried that he’ll expose her vulnerabilities and invite others to hijack her coronation.
Last month Mrs. Clinton assured former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is weighing an independent White House bid, that she’ll win the nomination and so he needn’t run. Since then, we’ve learned that nearly two dozen emails on the private server she used as secretary of state were not only classified but so sensitive that no portion of them can be released publicly, even in redacted form. And after barely surviving Iowa, Mrs. Clinton may well lose big in New Hampshire to Mr. Sanders, whom Real Clear Politics shows leading by 18 points. We somehow doubt that Mr. Bloomberg, a billionaire who could finance his own campaign, has been reassured that the Democratic front-runner has everything under control.
But even a weakened Mrs. Clinton could win against the wrong Republican nominee. Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz are more popular among conservatives but fare worse than Mr. Rubio in head-to-head matchups with the former first lady among the swing voters in battleground states who often decide elections. Mr. Rubio polls better than both GOP rivals among white women, seniors and independents. Among moderates and suburban women, he trails Mrs. Clinton, but unlike Messrs. Trump and Cruz, Mr. Rubio is at least within striking distance.
Among Hispanics, all three Republicans trail Mrs. Clinton badly, but some of this may be guilt-by-association for Mr. Rubio. Of the three, he is the only one who hasn’t gone out of his way to antagonize Hispanics while discussing illegal immigration, which means he is better positioned to make inroads with this fast-growing voter bloc should he become the nominee. Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz are betting that the GOP can win in November by deepening its appeal. Mr. Rubio wants to widen it.
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