What We Learned in Iowa

Maybe the GOP contest isn’t really about the establishment and outsiders.

Ted Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz speaks at a caucus night rally on Feb. 1, 2016, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

It seemed like Donald Trump was going to upend every truth of politics, but the rule of Iowa held. A campaign based on the tested model of voter courtship with state-of-the-art improvements won the day. The victory was so familiar that it fit into a pattern that could apply to either party: first-term senator with Ivy League law degree defeats his more famous rival by electrifying his party base with a message of grassroots revolution and employing a ground game that set a record for voter turnout. (Winner: political strategists in GOP politics. I’ve got a voter turnout dashboard app that will Cruz-ify your microtarget, persuasion, and analytics game.)

The Republican Party’s base asserted itself. Trump turned out new voters—some of them former Democrats, according to the Iowa GOP—but it wasn’t enough to overcome the loyalists. The other story of Iowa is that the pragmatic wing of the party asserted itself, too. Of the 21 percent of the voters who said they were picking candidates they thought could win in November, 43 percent went for Rubio. Cruz came in third with that group at 22 percent. Trump came in second with 25 percent. 

Now there’s a lane change. In Iowa 42 percent of voters picked a candidate who they said “shares my values.” That number is likely to be smaller in New Hampshire, a contest that will favor a more mainstream Republican. It’s the state that picked Mitt Romney and John McCain against more ideological foes. 

A contest that has been characterized as a fight between the establishment and the outsiders is going to become a fight between the pragmatists and the ideologues.

Cruz was the first GOP candidate to take on Trump and not emerge weaker. He also took on the sitting governor, Terry Branstad, who had come out against him for his refusal to support the Renewable Fuel Standard. Cruz has a claim to having done more than simply survive. He can say he has emerged stronger. 

Though someone might assign him to the Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum category—past Iowa winners who then went nowhere—he has a vastly superior organization and almost $20 million moving forward.

There’s a crucial way in which Cruz is like Santorum, though. His share of the “very conservative” vote is his lifeblood, according to entrance polls. He won that group 43 percent to 21 percent for Trump. Outside of that group Cruz did not win. Rubio edged out those who self-identified as “somewhat conservative,” and Trump won among moderates. Right now Cruz doesn’t have a big enough group to win the primaries, as Santorum eventually learned.

Cruz in his throaty victory speech encouraged Republicans to “come home” to his cause. That was a recognition he needs more Republicans, but can he grow his vote beyond his die-hard base?

Of the top three finishers in Iowa, it was Trump who did the best among all categories of ideological levels, but entrance polls showed that the biggest chunk of his support came from people who decided a month ago. That could suggest that what we’ve been saying for a long time is true: He has a ceiling of support beyond his die-hard supporters.

Rubio was so buoyant leaving Iowa that he might have floated to the Granite State. He says he’s the only one who can unify the party. But waiting for him at the border with blackjacks and very cutting things to say are the three other mainstream conservatives. They have a choice to make. Will they savage Rubio at the risk of tearing him down and elevating Trump or Cruz? It’s the old murder-suicide fix. Such attacks tear you and your opponent down and wind up helping someone else.

Chris Christie was already attacking Rubio before the Florida senator could trundle his kids off to bed in the New Hampshire hotel and shave for the morning shows. Maybe it’s the road to victory of the New Jersey pugilist, but if it’s not and he takes down Rubio, it’ll remind some in the GOP of his election coziness with Obama that they think damaged Romney late in the general election.

And what does Jeb Bush do? His super PAC is helping cement the governor’s legacy as the principal destroyer of perhaps the most viable Latino candidate to ever run under the GOP banner. Does the scion of a family known for an older-style politics want to engage in a full-frontal assault against his former Florida ally? Or will he choose to put a more dignified cap on what may be the last burst of electoral activity of the third political generation of the Bush family?

Bush and Christie have to feel particularly chastened by Iowa. They did try to compete there, and they left no mark on the state. Even McCain, who was openly contemptuous of Iowa, got 13 percent of the vote in 2008. It’s a tough sell for a candidate to make the case that he has broad and unifying appeal in the party while leaving such a weightless impression in the Hawkeye State.

As the race continues, we might get some actual clarity about the terms we’ve been using so far. What does it really mean to be in the establishment—no former lobbyists in your administration? Or does it mean just the right position on undocumented immigrants? What does it really mean to be an outsider when you’re a sitting senator? Though this is supposed to be the year of the outsider, 56 percent of the GOP vote went to Washington senators (senators who are all in their first terms, which was once seen as disqualifying when Republicans were attacking Sen. Barack Obama).

Cruz is an outsider within the Senate, but he used his Senate victory and his time in Washington to build his campaign and the movement behind it. He didn’t line his pockets with the perks of the job, but he did use his national elected office and the platform it gave him to advance himself in the world. You can only do that from the inside.

Trump is the true outsider. That’s why in entrance polls of those who were asked, “What is best preparation for being president?” of the 49 percent who said that a president should come from outside the political establishment, 46 percent supported Trump and only 19 percent supported Cruz. (Despite Cruz’s outsider claims, he nearly tied Rubio among those who think having political experience is important.)

Trump is not of Washington, and he is not of politics. We’ll learn in New Hampshire and future contests if that’s really as important as we all thought. Or do pragmatic Republicans want an elected official who can win more than they want a winner who has never been elected? And while our winning wordplay is winning: If Trump doesn’t win in New Hampshire, it’ll likely be the last word for his campaign.

See more of Slate’s coverage of the GOP primary.