The big headline last night was a poor showing for the candidacy of Donald Trump, who underperformed both in losing to Sen. Ted Cruz and barely edging a surging Sen. Marco Rubio. Heading into next week's New Hampshire primary, Trump's campaign is not quite on life support, but it has lost its inevitability and most of its swagger.
Going in to last night's Iowa contest, the RealClearPolitics average of polls had Trump pegged to win by almost six points. Instead, he lost to Cruz by four points, and beat Rubio by just one. That may mean the polls got it wrong. But it also could mean people find it a lot easier to say they’re going to vote for Trump than to actually do so.
Cruz, with his ultra-professional campaign and smooth stump style, brought home a huge triumph. But so did Rubio, who continues to stand out as the party go-to both for the moderate GOP voters (and party elites) who made former Gov. Mitt Romney, Sen. John McCain and former President George W. Bush the last three Republican nominees.
On the Democratic side, what was essentially a tie between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders has to be seen as a win for him and a loss for her. In that race, the latest polls before the caucuses had been split. But when you’re the presumptive nominee and you’re running against a rumpled but loveable socialist, anything close to a tie is far from a victory.
Now what? For Republicans, three candidates -- Cruz, Trump and Rubio -- won legitimate tickets to move on to New Hampshire. The question is how many of the nine other GOP hopefuls, who between them split 25 percent of the votes, will continue on without a legitimate ticket, like hitchhikers clinging to the campaign buses of the top contenders?
Former Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, but drew only 2 percent this time around, suspended his campaign after the tallying, but no other GOP candidate followed suit last night. That’s important because it seems the GOP race will come down to two factors. First is momentum: whether Rubio and/or Cruz can maintain it, and whether Trump can regain it. Second is who will attract the GOP voters who support the floundering candidates as they quit or become obvious no-hopers but refuse to quit.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley also suspended his campaign last night, leaving Sanders and Clinton to fight it out for the Democratic nomination. Iowa changed little in their race, although it dented Clinton a bit. If she gets clobbered in New Hampshire by her New England nemesis as is likely, she is going to have to win big in South Carolina, and then again on Super Tuesday to avoid the sense that she’s reliving her 2008 primary nightmares.
New Hampshire's primary is in eight days, and the general election is in nine months, so we are a long way from the finish line. But we are, at least, truly underway in a race that already feels endless.