You can pick your headline for Iowa: “Trump Didn’t Win.” “Hillary Didn’t Lose.” “Rubio’s the One.”
I prefer the third.
Of course I’ve left some out, like “Bernie Almost Ties Hillary” or “Ted Cruz Wins,” but those are easy. On the first, we’ll have months to discuss whether this is really a reflection of Hillary Clinton’s weakness or a product of the ridiculousness of the process of selecting a nominee, but that has to wait until we see what happens in South Carolina and Nevada. As for the second, I’m no Cruz fan, but the slight is not personal. It’s just that in primary politics, when you win where you’re supposed to win — and indeed have to win because everyone’s concluded the state is tailor-made for you — it’s a big “so what?”
Did you see Clinton cut right into his victory speech? Poor Ted. My prediction is we’ve seen his high point. The press is going to pound him with true stories and accurate quotes. (One of his colleagues from the Bush 2000 campaign quipped, “Why do people take such an instant dislike to Ted Cruz? It just saves time.”) He’ll get that from the press. But he won’t get the big bounce. I’m predicting Rubio does.
Trump’s belated but much-longed-for show of weakness allows establishment Republicans to breathe as big a sigh of relief as Clinton. That’s because those “establishment Republicans,” previously known to those on the other side as “right-wing conservatives,” are now understood to be moderate and responsible and interested in winning and governing. (Who knew John Boehner was a moderate?)
Rubio’s is the best story, because he is the only one of the three who has any chance of ending up in what Lee Atwater, George H.W. Bush’s campaign manager, used to call the “little boat.” The hypothetical boat has room only for the few men and women Americans could imagine as president (whether or not they like them). Some 75 percent of Republican primary voters voted against Trump. That it was the much-hated (by fellow Republicans) Cruz who beat him this time doesn’t prove Cruz can win anywhere else, but it does prove Trump could also lose somewhere else. Maybe not in New Hampshire, but remember, nobody’s really fighting about delegates now. Delegates don’t start mattering in big numbers until March. It’s who does BTE (“better than expected”) and who loses.
Rubio was the first of the top five candidates — the ones everyone was watching — to take the stage Monday. Smart. His version of Bill Clinton’s 1992 “Comeback Kid” speech (when Bill turned a second-place finish into a victory by getting out on television and declaring a moral victory before the real winner could claim it) worked like a charm. Rubio was not facing a crisis like Clinton was then, but, politically speaking, the trick was the same: Turn yourself into the night’s winner by going out and claiming — within reason — that you are the one who did the most “BTE,” which always has been the standard course in Iowa.
Iowa is also best known on the Democratic side for launching not those expected to win who do but those who lose by less than expected.
Jimmy Carter, then a little-known one-term Georgia governor, actually lost to “Uncommitted” in 1976, but he was the first of the rest, and that was close enough. In 1984, Gary Hart’s campaign really took off after he lost Iowa but came closer to Walter Mondale than expected. And of course, President Lyndon Johnson was driven from office after defeating — but not by enough — Sen. Eugene McCarthy, unleashing a mad and tragic race for the presidency. That’s primary politics: the march of the calendar, the manipulation of expectations and the amassing of delegates from a minority of a minority of voters. It’s so laden with the potential for disaster that I am sometimes surprised that it functions as well as it does.
Susan Estrich is a columnist, commentator and law and political science professor at USC.