Journalists have an unfortunate tendency, when it comes to big political stories, to prove their savvy by going counterintuitive. A lot of them are saying that the "real winner" of the Iowa caucuses is Sen. Marco Rubio, even though he came in third. And Rubio did have a good night. But it's worth dwelling on the possibility that the real winner might instead be the guy who won, Sen. Ted Cruz.
Cruz, an old friend of mine, came back from being behind in the polls. He did it over the opposition of popular Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, R. He did it even though he opposes ethanol subsidies, a position that had been thought to be fatal in Iowa.
He did it even though the last two weeks of the campaign saw some high-profile leaders in his natural constituency, evangelical Christians, come out for Donald Trump. And he did it even though the caucus saw record-breaking turnout that was supposed to work in Trump's favor. All in all, it was an impressive achievement.
Trump's defeat in Iowa may cause him to lose support elsewhere too, as he loses his prized image as one of life's natural winners. But Iowa damaged his candidacy even if his polling in New Hampshire stays level. Everyone involved in the campaigns has long understood that Trump could win the nomination only by bringing new voters into the Republican primaries to support him. His candidacy indeed drew new voters in Iowa -- but many of them came out to stop him. Quite apart from what Iowa does to his momentum, this energized anti-Trump vote is a large roadblock on his path to the nomination.
If Trump does fade, many of his voters could go to Cruz. Trump took second place among Iowa's evangelical Christian Republicans; many of them would probably have gone to Cruz if he were not in the race. Cruz may also do better in other states because ethanol won't be an issue to bedevil him.
Two dangers, however, lurk behind his win. First, the entrance polls showed him placing third among voters who are not evangelicals: He had the support of an estimated 18 percent of them, compared with 34 percent of his co-religionists. That's only a little bit better than Mike Huckabee did among non- evangelicals when he won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, and his poor showing with this group persisted in other states. Cruz has to avoid doing things that define him as an exclusively evangelical candidate.
Second, Cruz needs to perform better among voters who describe themselves as "somewhat conservative." He cleaned up among the "very conservative," winning 44 percent. That's Cruz's base. But contrary to the theory of some Cruzites that this group is growing as the Republican Party moves right, it was a smaller share of caucus-goers this year than in 2008 or 2012.
The ranks of the "somewhat conservatives," on the other hand, have increased a bit. They are at the center of the Republican electorate, and their candidate tends to win the nomination in the end. In Iowa, they went for Rubio (29 percent), then Trump (24 percent) and only then Cruz (19 percent).
After Iowa, Cruz has to do better among particular groups. Rubio has to actually win somewhere. Trump has to show durability. And Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich have to do well enough in New Hampshire to justify staying in the race.
The caucuses have left none of the Republicans in a commanding position, and all of them with a challenge.