DES MOINES — In Iowa, the hater became a loser.
In the first contest of the Republican nomination, Donald Trump, the man who predicated his entire campaign on his ability to win everything and everywhere, suffered a devastating Iowa defeat to Sen. Ted Cruz. He now faces a second major problem: the surging Sen. Marco Rubio, who finished third, is now the clear establishment favorite, and poses a real threat to Trump in next week’s New Hampshire primary.
Absent policy expertise, his bluster about achieving foreign and domestic “wins” constituted the entire sustaining force of his campaign. As he once said on Twitter, quoting the golfer Walter Hagen, “No one remembers who came in second.” It was a triumphant attitude based on polling leads that continually defied expectations and a successful career in real estate that he elevated to mythological proportions.
Trump was unstoppable, he continually insisted, and faced only an endless string of victories that were all but assured.
That all changed Monday night as a visibly-deflated Trump gave brief remarks to supporters in Iowa. Absent was the swagger of Trump events past: “I think we’re going to be proclaiming victory, I hope,” Trump said of the New Hampshire primary.
It was perhaps his most magnanimous speech of the campaign. He congratulated Cruz on the win in Iowa and repeated over and over again that he loved the people of Iowa.
“I think I might come here and buy a farm,” Trump said, as he closed his speech. To put that in perspective, back in October he insisted to the people that if he lost the Hawkeye State he would “never speak to you people again.”
Polling conducted in the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses showed Trump with the lead over Cruz—but the defining question was whether political amateur Trump had the organization in the Hawkeye State to turn out his supporters. Early entrance polling showed that 4 in 10 Republicans had never attended a caucus before, and veteran Republicans in the state expected a record turnout that would boost Trump.
The businessman has also gone after Cruz with a vengeance—while they had once held a joint campaign event, the bromance ended in recent months, as Trump raised questions about Cruz’s eligibility to be president and criticized him for taking an unreported loan from Goldman Sachs, his wife’s then-employer, to finance his 2012 Senate campaign.
Cruz’s victory defied the odds, proving that his much-vaunted ground game in the first presidential contest was the key to victory.
Over 12,000 volunteers worked for Cruz, both from within Iowa and from nearly three dozen other states. At the event Cruz held for his Iowa supporters Monday evening, women line danced as they celebrated a substantial margin of victory.
Volunteers from across the country braved accommodations in college dorms—with the moniker “Camp Cruz”—to go door-knocking and make phone calls. “Let’s put it this way: It was not a four-star hotel,” said JoAnn Fleming, the co-chair of the “Texas Strike Force” that brought volunteers from out of state to support the Texas senator.
“You can spend money on an air campaign but there’s nothing like dedicated volunteers that will spend their own money to go thousands of miles... That’s something money can’t buy,” Fleming said.
Cruz opened his victory speech with a nod to his Christian faith he’s continually referenced since the start of the campaign. “Let me first of all say, to God be the glory,” he said as the crowd roared.
And he wasn’t shy about invoking Psalm 30, which is about David’s soul being lifted up from Sheol, to describe the final months of President Obama’s time in office.
“While Americans will continue to suffer under a president who’s set an agenda that’s causing millions to hurt across this country, I want to remind you of the promise of scripture,” he said. “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”
Cruz’s speech lasted for quite some time, but attendess seemed to stay in high spirits through the 30-minute-plus talk. As he talked about his 18-hour days on the trail, a fan in the crowd yelled “You’re not tired!”
Cruz smiled. “We’re not tired at all.”
His backers couldn’t help but gloat that Trump had, at long last, been vanquished. “He’s not gonna win everywhere. It’s already over. He may win in some places, but he’s not going to win everywhere,” said Ken Cuccinelli, a Cruz surrogate and the former attorney general of Virginia.
After tonight’s victory, Cruz is the first Republican to survive a head-to-head confrontation with Trump: Other GOP challengers—Ben Carson and Jeb Bush—wilted away after Trump mocked them. Cruz survived and triumphed.
In typical Trump fashion, the mogul had broken all the rules of campaigning—making fun of Carson’s story about a purported childhood stabbing attempt, and mocking Iowa voters as his grip on the polls slipped a little late last year.
“How stupid are the people of Iowa?” Trump asked. “How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap?”
Just months ago, Trump was considered a political punchline—pundits predicted that Republican primary voters would soon get over their infatuation with the buffoonish businessman after the “Summer of Trump.”
But the seemingly invincible billionaire rode through controversy after controversy—instead of melting away, he has taken advantage of his celebrity status to dominate news cycles. He lost the lead in Iowa just to regain it again and again.
Trump resilience continued to confound political observers. He made countless comments that would have destroyed the candidacies of other politicians: He characterized Mexican immigrants as “rapists” at his campaign launch event; promised to ban all Muslims from entering the United States; disparaged former prisoner of war Sen. John McCain, saying he liked “people who weren’t captured”; doxxed Sen. Lindsey Graham’s cellphone number; and said of newscaster Megyn Kelly’s debate questions that “you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes... blood coming out of her wherever.” All of these statements were seen as campaign-ending gaffes.
But for months, despite the predictions of pollsters and pundits, it never hurt his numbers. He rode in to Iowa as the man to beat, the guy poised to run the table against all his Republican opponents and secure the biggest primary victory of any candidate in modern times.
Instead Trump barely cleared second place in a remarkable defeat. And while it may be too soon to officially declare that the Trump Train has finally gone off the rails, the man who has led the Republican field since early last summer suddenly finds himself in a profoundly difficult battle to regain momentum before New Hampshire.
Trump has withstood mocking from the media and dismissive insults from his opponents. The question now is whether he can survive becoming his most famous and frequently used epithet: loser.