The conventional wisdom got set in stone long before all the GOP's votes had been counted in Iowa Monday night: Donald Trump fell flat on his face. Marco Rubio bounded to the head of the mainstream Republican pack. And Ted Cruz blew it out of the water with a strong first-place showing.
I'll give Trump his humiliation and Rubio his glory. But Cruz? I'm sorry, but no laurels for him. He remains a deeply unattractive candidate with very little mainstream appeal. He's hated by just about every elected member of his party. His positions on the issues place him on the GOP's far-right flank. And on the stump he manages to come off as a shrill, self-aggrandizing, sanctimonious phony.
But wait — doesn't Cruz's victory in Iowa belie everything I just said? He showed he's a winner!
No, he didn't. He showed he's a winner in Iowa. Just as Mike Huckabee did in 2008, and Rick Santorum in 2012. Did anyone consider them frontrunners for the nomination heading into New Hampshire? Of course not, because they weren't. Huckabee went on to carry eight states, while Santorum carried 11. Not bad. But not even close to cinching the nomination.
Will Cruz do as well? It's hard to say, since the polls will shift somewhat coming out of Iowa. But at the moment, Cruz is running a distant second to Trump in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada — and that's without factoring in the surge of energy and momentum (and spike in money and endorsements) the Rubio campaign is going to experience over the next week.
Let's say it quickly becomes a three-man race. In that case, Cruz might carry some states — a few in the South, including his home state of Texas, perhaps some others in the Midwest. The most conservatives states, in other words, and certainly not the big, delegate-rich states of California, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, and New Jersey.
That would be a decent, respectable showing — a Huckabee- or Santorum-level showing. But it wouldn't make Cruz the nominee. It would make him the far-right-wing candidate he's always been.
Those are the kinds of candidates Iowa Republicans have preferred in the post-George W. Bush era. In 2012, the combination of Santorum, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and Michele Bachmann won 64 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses. Last night, Cruz, Trump, Ben Carson, Huckabee, and Santorum together won…64 percent of the vote.
Just under two-thirds of Iowa Republicans appear to be attracted to candidates who are exceedingly unlikely to appeal to large numbers of voters in most of the rest of the country. That's largely a function of the fact that a high percentage of Iowa Republicans are religious conservatives, and evangelical Protestants in particular.
Does it make any sense that such an ideologically marginal (and extreme) state votes first in the presidential election cycle every time? None whatsoever.
But short of upending the post-1972 tradition of starting the voting with Iowa, we can at least view the results of the Iowa caucuses with the skepticism they deserve.
Ted Cruz won Iowa. But the victory means much less than it seems.