Donald Trump’s stunning and durable lead in polls of GOP primary voters raised expectations to such an extent that conservatives have been talking themselves into accepting his inevitability. In Iowa, it seemed as though Trump might attract legions of disaffected voters who’d overwhelm Republican regulars by becoming caucus-goers for the first time. But to the surprise of many, high turnout in Monday night’s caucuses did not lead to a Trump victory. Instead, Ted Cruz defeated Trump by a comfortable margin, and Marco Rubio came surprisingly close to relegating Trump to third place. Naturally, anti-Trump Republicans are delighted by the outcome in Iowa. Rubio’s success holds out the possibility that the party will rally around the Florida senator, thus preventing Trump or Cruz from winning the GOP nomination.
But Monday night’s outcome means less than you might think for Trump’s prospects going forward. Cruz often speaks of his fight against “the Washington cartel.” Yet it is Trump who has violated almost every tenet of movement conservative orthodoxy and who has maligned professional politicians, Republican or Democratic, as the pathetic cat’s paws of billionaires like himself. He has demonstrated that there is a large constituency of Republicans who are indifferent to the fight against Obamacare and the battle to cut capital gains taxes, and who are instead passionate about restricting immigration and protecting America’s industries against Chinese competition. Trump is threatening to transform the ideological configuration of the GOP, and all his Republican rivals can do is react to his erratic moves. This dynamic won’t suddenly come to an end because of Iowa, and it has allowed him to shape the Republican race to fit his strengths.
There is a widespread belief that because Trump so often emphasizes his talent for winning, any setback will prove devastating to his all-important aura of invincibility. Keep in mind, however, that Trump lost his lead on more than one occasion in the months leading up to Iowa, yet he kept pressing ahead. Trump’s reality distortion field proved even more powerful than the polls, and it may yet prove more powerful than the Iowa caucuses.
The truth is that Iowa was never the most favorable terrain for Trump’s brand of populism. Indeed, one could argue that Trump would have been wise to play down expectations for the caucuses, though doing so would have been very off-brand for a man loved and admired for his brashness. His real strength lies not among the devoutly religious Republican caucus-goers of Iowa, 61 percent of whom identified as evangelical or born-again Christians in an entrance poll conducted on Monday night. Rather, Trump appeals most to working-class Republicans in rural stretches of the Deep South, Appalachia, and the Northeast, and in particular to those of a more secular bent.
New Hampshire, then, is likely to prove far more favorable ground for Trump than Iowa. For one thing, New Hampshire voters are far less religiously observant, and there is at least some reason to believe that Trump’s aggressive style doesn’t appeal to all God-fearing Christians. And though much has changed in New Hampshire since 1996, it is worth remembering that it's the state where Pat Buchanan’s nationalist challenge to the GOP establishment enjoyed its greatest success. Unless something dramatic changes between now and next week, there is every reason to believe that Trump will defeat Cruz and Rubio in New Hampshire, where he enjoys a wide lead in the polls, and there is an excellent chance that he will do the same in South Carolina, where he fares almost as well.
Trump also benefits from the fact that Cruz and Rubio are not the only other Republicans left standing. Despite his abysmal performance in Iowa, Jeb Bush continues to have considerable resources at his disposal, and the super PAC allied with his campaign has already devoted vast sums of money to savage attacks on Rubio, Bush’s erstwhile mentee. John Kasich and Chris Christie are not nearly as well-situated financially, but they also have nothing to lose. What reason do they have not to join Bush in savaging Rubio in the days to come?
Cruz will largely escape attacks from these also-rans, as they don’t see him as their chief competition for the “somewhat conservative” vote that is so important in GOP primaries. Instead, Cruz will focus his attention on South Carolina, where he will attempt to demonstrate that his brand of populism is more hard-edged than Trump’s. That will be a tough sell. Over the past few weeks, Rubio and his allies have demonstrated that Cruz has not been entirely consistent about his stance on immigration. Trump has also held a number of contradictory positions on immigration, yet his extreme rhetoric has shown that he has no interest in placating the powers-that-be. The same can’t be said of Cruz or Rubio, both of whom are hemmed in to at least some degree by their dependence on wealthy GOP donors. Trump, meanwhile, has only begun to start drawing on his personal fortune to finance his campaign and to build out a larger campaign staff.
So is it inevitable that Trump will emerge as the Republican nominee? Not at all. If he experiences a few more ego-bruising reversals, Trump might lose interest in the political fray. The GOP field could also winnow, and Trump could fail to build his support beyond the third of the Republican electorate that supports him. But as long as Trump wants to pursue the nomination, he will remain a formidable force. Anti-Trump Republicans who believe otherwise are indulging in wishful thinking.