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Presidential Horse Race 2016: Ted Cruz pops Trump invincibility balloon with a huge win in Iowa

Sssswwwwooooooooooooooooooooosssshhhhhhh!

That’s the sound of the air bursting out of the Donald Trump “I win everything” hot air balloon in Iowa, where Ted Cruz pulled off a good sized victory in the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Here are the totals, showing a three-point plus victory for the Texas senator.

Ted Cruz victoryWe finally have something tangible to chew on in the Republican presidential race and the “conventional wisdom” on the value of organization and ground game came through in spades. On a night when the turnout was historically high in The Hawkeye State (unofficial counts put it at over 180,000, about 50,000 more than the previous high), Ted’s campaign was simply able to get more of his people to the polls.

Erick Erickson of The Resurgent writes, “Ted Cruz is winning Iowa. His ground game pushed him through and put him over polling that suggested he would lose to Donald Trump.

“But Ted Cruz has not only outperformed, he is the only politician in America to successfully turn Donald Trump into a loser.

“The media would prefer you look at Marco Rubio’s commendable showing, but given the polling spreads, Ted Cruz actually outperformed Marco Rubio. Cruz is leaving Iowa with a bigger win above polling averages than Rubio gets in third place.”

Listening to the media reports – even from the Fox News anchors -- you would have thought Rubio was the big winner. Sure, Marco crept up on Trump, virtually tying The Donald for second place – but the real story is Cruz’s win. Ted faced a non-stop onslaught from all competitors in the final days before the vote and emerged as the champion.

I wonder if Trump still thinks it was a good idea to skip last Thursday’s debate…

Regardless of who won, it’s a long road

Wow, that was exciting wasn’t it? All the lead-up to and the pageantry surrounding the Iowa caucuses – it’s a unique way to begin every presidential nominating cycle.

But now that Ted Cruz has come out on top, what has he really accomplished?

Before Cruz supporters get too high or Trump backers get too low, let’s first consider that only 30 delegates were at stake last night (27 if you don’t count unpledged party leaders). Ted Cruz came out of Iowa with eight delegates to seven for Trump and Rubio. Ben Carson took three and Rand Paul one. Heck, even Jeb Bush won a delegate last night.

As an interesting side note, Ron Paul came in third in the 2012 Iowa Republican caucuses, yet still came out way ahead in the delegate count. Rick Santorum got the close “victory” in the Iowa popular vote, but the Republican nomination is about delegates, not pure votes.

Statistically speaking, 2473 Republican delegates are available at the beginning of the process. 1237 are needed to secure the nomination. We’ve all heard multiple times about the possibility of a contested convention, but it’s a bit early to start talking about that here.

The only thing that’s for sure on February 2 is that we now know Ted Cruz won the popular vote of the Iowa caucuses and can count on eight convention votes towards the nomination.

Meanwhile, the candidates are back on the road. New Hampshire votes in a week (February 9) and 20 more delegates are at stake. South Carolina holds its primary on February 20, with 50 more delegates at stake.

Somebody will win these states, but as you can see, the process has really just begun.

Now that we have a little perspective on the overall picture, here are some things that are true:

1. There will be a long race to the convention. There isn’t a single candidate in the Republican field who can claim inevitability, because each one has his (or her) own strengths and weaknesses. Unlike some years, there isn’t an establishment favorite in this race (see below), so it’s more wide open than it probably has ever been.

2. The perceived leader will draw at least one and possibly two main opponent(s) at some point. If one candidate enjoys early success, the electorate will give possible challengers an even closer examination as an alternative. Mitt Romney certainly looked like the clear frontrunner in 2012 after winning in Iowa (until it was “corrected” to give Santorum the victory) and New Hampshire, yet he went on to lose in South Carolina to Newt Gingrich.

Voters obviously hadn’t made up their minds yet and weren’t ready to crown Romney as the inevitable winner.

After South Carolina, money and organization came into play, areas where Romney clearly had a leg up. Despite these enormous advantages, Rick Santorum ended up winning 11 states.

3. The size of the field will keep it competitive longer this year. Winner-take-all primaries don’t start until mid-March, so there’s a lot of incentive for lower polling candidates to wait around in hopes of catching fire.

They’ll be hoping to be that “alternative” candidate who eventually emerges.

It’s conceivable several of the candidates could stay in it the entire way with Super PAC money for ads and skeleton staffs to keep them campaigning.

Lastly, if you’d like to do a little forecasting of your own and gain a better understanding of how the delegate system works, try Sean Trende’s (of Real Clear Politics) interactive tool for keeping track of the delegate counts.

Once again, Ted Cruz should feel good about his victory last night. The media will try and whip this into some sort of lucky step for him. But if he’s smart, he’ll realize we’ve only just begun.

With Iowa over, establishment turns up the heat to consolidate

Even if the Republican establishment had somehow managed to win in Iowa, they still figured to have a major problem on their hands. The party elites remain deeply divided over who to favor in the establishment lane going forward and even worse for them – they’ve got a collection of candidates who are in no mood to help them out of the pickle by falling on their own swords and bowing out of the race.

Alex Isenstadt of Politico reports, “With the GOP political class growing increasingly worried that insurgents Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are becoming hard to stop, some in the party say the time is near for three lagging establishment hopefuls — Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich — to reassess their candidacies and help the party unite around one contender…

“[T]he struggling trio of establishment candidates insist they have little interest in dropping out any time soon — and, to the contrary, are mapping out long primary campaigns that will take them far beyond Iowa and New Hampshire. On Sunday, some of those hopefuls and their allied super PACs reported substantial fundraising sums that will allow them to power forward well into the primary calendar.”

I could barely stifle a chuckle as I read this, not only because it means the establishment will continue to falter in succeeding primaries but also because of the delusions expressed by the Bush, Kasich and Christie people.

The establishment hasn’t had much luck in shepherding the outsiders in the party thus far and it looks like they’re not doing any better in terms of controlling their own slate of candidates. The elites are finally reaping the harvest of ill-will that they’ve so carefully sown in the past decade, demonizing conservatives and their own base for insisting on accountability and advocacy for the conservative agenda.

The Republican Party brand is about as poor as it can possibly get, yet the leaders can’t fully grasp why. Maybe they should grab a mirror or take a group selfie and post it on the party facebook page.

With the right title, that photo would get millions of “likes.”

Isenstadt also reported on a retreat that took place in Florida this past weekend where the usual down-ballot catastrophe was forecast for the party if Trump or Cruz heads the ticket in November.

These people have an amazing ability to panic based on what they think might happen. All the evidence in the world – namely the electoral debacles of John McCain and Mitt Romney – fail to sway them from the commonly held belief that disaster is at hand unless a principle-free establishment goon heads the party.

In addition to the false premise of their argument, it can’t be said with any certainty that even if the three-headed goat of Bush, Kasich and Christie left the race that all the establishment votes would automatically fall to Rubio.

Polls show Ted Cruz is the strong second choice of a healthy percentage of Republican voters. While he clearly draws from the most conservative party members, certainly some of those Bush/Kasich/Christie folks will move over to his side.

The establishment’s biggest problem is they simply don’t have the numbers to push their candidate on conservatives this time. Even if Rubio emerges as the establishment choice (and after Iowa, it looks like he will), he’ll still need a lot of conservatives to go along with him.

With his past advocacy of amnesty following him everywhere he goes, that’s just not likely to happen.

The Republican donor class better get used to the idea that they can’t always have it their way. In this situation the “little guy” has become much more powerful, with strength in numbers.

Conclusion – Winners and clear losers

After Monday night’s candidate speeches, the competitors were anxious to skip town ahead of a forecasted blizzard that was just about to touch down in Iowa.

They were heading to New Hampshire to start the next phase with a fresh set of events to commence probably within hours.

Mike Huckabee tweeted that he was suspending his campaign at around 10:30 EST. He won’t be with the others in The Granite State. Neither will Democrat Martin O’Malley, who managed 1 percent in a three-candidate race and also called it quits.

Talk about a loser.

Hillary Clinton is a loser too, even after scratching out a razor-thin win. If she can’t handily beat Bernie Sanders in a state like Iowa, you have to wonder about the viability of her candidacy in general.

It’s going to be an interesting year, for sure.

By far the biggest winner in either party is Ted Cruz, and with him the conservative movement. Cruz has run as an unapologetic conservative and proved he could overcome the Donald Trump phenomenon and an establishment full-court press at the same time.

Cruz has instituted a similar organizational strategy in the next early states as he built in Iowa. The polls aren’t on his side – right now – but only a fool would count him out.

We’ve only just begun, folks.

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