Des Moines, Iowa—I had a premonition of Donald Trump’s Iowa caucus loss Monday sitting in a half-empty Waterloo auditorium that morning. He was low-energy, his crowd was low-energy, and I didn’t understand the choice of Adele’s “Rollin’ in the Deep”—“We could have had it a-a-allllllll”—as his walk-up music, on Caucus Day.
But the truth is, I should have seen it, or at least suspected it, on Saturday morning when Senator Ted Cruz packed an Ames hotel ballroom with parents and kids and showed off his high-profile Iowa-based evangelical support. In Iowa endorsements matter, and organization matters, and in the end it seems Trump had little of either, and Cruz had it all.
The event was fascinating. Cruz was endorsed by four conservative heavyweights, who couldn’t decide quite how apocalyptic to be: Media Research Center founder Brent Bozell, Family Leader CEO Bob Vander Plaats, conservative anti-immigrant Congressman Steve King, and radio hysteric Glenn Beck, whose media empire “The Blaze” was in the process of going up in flames but who still showed up to praise his friend Cruz. Vander Plaats noted that he’d never before been on the same side as Steve King in a caucus, and suggested that was a good omen, and it turned out to be one. Glenn Beck told the crowd: “There’s gonna come a time of catastrophic consequences in the next four to eight years, if we make it,” and he assured them Cruz will be ready: “In his DNA, he knows the constitution.”
By contrast, two days later Donald Trump was in Waterloo, alone, no big-star introductions, just name-dropping B-list supporters like Jerry Falwell Jr. and Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The tired-seeming Trump failed to fire up the crowd; at the next stop, in Cedar Rapids, he was upstaged by another B-lister, Sarah Palin, and suddenly his campaign seemed like the mediocre reality-TV hoax many expected when it began. Can he recover in New Hampshire, and beyond? It’s going to get interesting.
The other new development Monday night was the emergence of Marco Rubio as “the” establishment candidate. He made the night’s first victory speech, which seemed presumptuous unless you realized he’d won a big victory with donors. Rubio was the story in the caucus I attended, where his supporters, plus those of Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul, all told me the party had to stop Trump and Cruz. “Cruz is playing up to the evangelicals,” retired Drake University librarian James Leonardo told me. “You don’t want to be ruled by the Koran, why do you want to be ruled by the Bible?” A Rand Paul supporter behind us said, “I absolutely don’t trust Trump—he’s working for Hillary,” and said Rubio was her second choice.
This moderate Des Moines precinct of roughly 130 voters gave 40 votes to Rubio, 29 to Jeb Bush, 20 to Paul, and only 18 to Cruz and 11 to Trump, plus a handful to Chris Christie and John Kasich. That wasn’t the norm here in conservative Christian Iowa, but it’s likely a harbinger of the way the establishment side of the race shakes out. Christie and Kasich are doing better than that in New Hampshire, but Rubio’s strong showing here makes their road harder.
Cruz gave an overwrought, overlong victory speech in which he brazenly annexed Obama’s “Yes, we can” and shared the over-quoted mawkish Psalm 30:15—“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning”—which felt like an odd thing to say about an exciting nighttime victory, but what do I know? The networks cut away from Cruz’s long-winded self-tribute to Hillary Clinton’s non-victory speech, and then Bernie Sanders’s, and I think Cruz was still going when Sanders finished.
I found Cruz’s Saturday speech more instructive about the rest of the campaign, because it laid out the agenda that won over Iowa, and it’s more extreme than any other candidate’s. He shared the list of what he would do the proverbial Day One in the White House, and there were some surprises. Number one was predictable: “rescind every illegal and unconstitutional executive action” of President Obama. But number two—before tearing up the Iran nuclear deal or repealing Obamacare–was having the Department of Justice investigate and hopefully prosecute Planned Parenthood. Go figure. Moving Israel’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem also came before destroying Obamacare, or securing our Southern border. Bob Vander Plaats, by the way, mentioned Cruz’s importance to Israel at least three times in his speech. So this is going to be a real far-right evangelical Christian campaign, the likes of which we haven’t seen at a national level.
But that’s what Cruz insists is necessary to win back the White House after a run of “squishes”—Mitt Romney and John McCain—got the nomination and lost. I think Cruz heralds a Goldwater-level loss if he wins, and so do establishment Republicans. Expect an enormous amount of pressure on Christie, Kasich, and Bush to make way for Rubio in the week to come.
And what about Trump? Even more than by his low-energy speech, I was struck by the fact that there was nobody even trying to direct voters to caucuses at his Caucus Day event. Having been to so many other candidates’ events, it suddenly felt like a fake campaign. Organization is more important in Iowa than in any other state, but it will be interesting if New Hampshire, where he still leads, sees his lackluster effort here as a sign of insufficient seriousness, in these self-important first two contests, and if he starts to slide.
He gave a fairly unusual and humble concession speech, for Trump. “Iowa, we love you. We thank you. You’re special. We will be back many, many times. In fact, I think I might come here and buy a farm. I love it!” I’m not sure if the plainspoken Trump realizes “bought the farm” is an old expression for, well, died. He’d be unlikely to say that, and it’s too early for me to say it either. But this was the worst day of Trump’s campaign to date, and it may herald many more bad days.