The success of Ted Cruz was in keeping with the suspension of political rules this campaign season. By all accounts, Cruz was on a downward slide in the weeks leading up to the caucuses. Ostensibly, the reason for Cruz’s decline was related to questions whether he was allowed to become president, since he was born in Canada. That feeble argument allowed the GOP establishment to pile onto Cruz, whom is universally loathed by party leaders. Meanwhile, support for Donald Trump–at least in polls–was growing.
But Cruz was running a very smart–and very homophobic–campaign in Iowa. He counted on the support of the state’s evangelicals, who turned out in record numbers for him. In his stump speech, Cruz called his supporters “the body of Christ,” which apparently resonated in a way that the rhetoric of a thrice-married casino magnate from New York could not.
Cruz also had the backing of the fringiest of the right wing fringe, amassing an impressive number of homophobes to back his campaign. Right up to the last minute, Cruz was playing on his anti-gay credentials, appearing at a rally with Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson, who blasted marriage equality as “evil.”
Notably absent from his campaign so far is gay PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel, who bankrolled Cruz’s Senate race. Thiel has been sitting out the current election cycle, preferring to focus on initiatives to revive nuclear power and detect bad steaks.
Just as surprising as Cruz’s victory was the strong showing of Sen. Marco Rubio, who is a kind of Stepford version of Cruz. Rubio finished a strong third, far above expectations. That’s solace for the political establishment, desperate for an alternative to Cruz and Trump.
So where do things go from here? Trump’s support in the polls didn’t translate into support at the polling place, which could mean that his huge (or in Donaldese YUUUGE) polling lead in next-to-vote New Hampshire might be a mirage. Cruz can claim a solid victory, but Iowa’s winners often go on to lose everywhere else (Rick Santorum won in 2012, and Mike Huckabee in 2008). Rubio has some much-needed momentum now, but he faces a lot of other establishment alternatives, including fellow Floridian Jeb Bush, the forgotten man of 2016.
If Trump had won, his path to the nomination looked clear. Now it looks like the GOP primary season will be another long slog, much like 2012.
Which will allow the Democrats time to settle their own disputes. With a neck-and-neck finish in Iowa, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will be debating each other for a while, allowing the political press the chance to write about a horse race that exists only in their imaginations. Barring a catastrophe, Hillary is bound to be the party’s nominee. As for Republicans, the catastrophe will be whoever the nominee is.