For the next week you’re going to be inundated with prognostications about what the results of the Iowa caucuses mean for New Hampshire and beyond. We’ve all been wrong about so many things that I’m not sure why anyone should pay attention. So tonight let’s pause for a moment and consider what has actually happened.
As I write this, Ted Cruz has won the Republican caucuses, beating Donald Trump. Marco Rubio is running third, which was expected, but turned in such a strong performance that he may yet slip ahead of Trump, which wasn’t expected. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is leading Bernie Sanders by the slimmest of margins, and it’s possible that we won’t know who actually won until sometime Tuesday.
On the surface, Trump’s bad night may suggest a victory for sanity. But consider: Cruz, Trump, and Ben Carson together received some 61 percent of the votes. And all three of them are extremists who share similar anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim views. In fact, Cruz and Carson are considerably to the right of Trump, who subscribes to no ideology beyond what’s advantageous to him at any given moment.
By winning an impressive 23 percent (as of this moment), Rubio has finally emerged as the establishment Republican alternative after months of failing to pick up the baton. Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Chris Christie, and the rest can go home now. But are the kinds of people who support Cruz, Trump, and Carson really going to turn around and vote for the establishment choice?
Maybe they will. Rubio, after all, was elected to the Senate with Tea Party support in 2010, and during this campaign he has moved far to the right on immigration. His pandering on religion excludes anyone who doesn’t subscribe to his particular brand of Christianity—never mind that he himself has been a Catholic, a Mormon, and an evangelical. If the way to defeat extremism is to offer extremism lite, then Rubio may be the Republicans’ best bet. But I suspect he’d be easy pickings for the Democrats if they weren’t so battered and bruised themselves.
I’m not sure how impressed I’m supposed to be by Sanders’s near-win over Clinton. Other than New Hampshire, Iowa was always going to be his best state. I’m inclined to think that any victory by Clinton, no matter how slim, should be seen as a victory. Sanders is still likely to take New Hampshire next week, but that’s already been baked into everyone’s expectations. Clinton’s advantages for winning the nomination remain enormous.
But now we get into the media-expectations game. And Clinton is going to get hammered over the next week because she didn’t win Iowa by a wide enough margin, even though there were plenty of reasons to believe she wouldn’t win at all.
You could see the consensus emerging tonight on cable news: There were two winners—Marco Rubio and Bernie Sanders—and one big loser—Donald J. Trump. Cruz was getting very little credit for his victory. And Clinton was portrayed as barely hanging on by her fingernails. Thursday’s debate looms large.
I don’t know how much it’s going to matter. The media may still be capable of setting the narrative, but the voters themselves are less willing to go along with each election cycle. Trump is the ultimate media creation (more the entertainment media than the news media), and, after a months-long build-up, he flopped on opening night.
Anyone searching for clarity tonight had to be disappointed. I wasn’t. The Iowa caucuses are a tiny event in a small, non-representative state. They shouldn’t decide anything, and they didn’t—Martin O’Malley’s and Mike Huckabee’s exits notwithstanding.
Maybe New Hampshire will tell us more.