Iowa was like a rainstorm that cleared away some of the nasty pollution clogging the air. Those last 10 polls that predicted Donald Trump would finish in first place? Wrong. The conventional wisdom about a high turnout sealing the deal for Trump proved — repeat — wrong. I am not a fan of the winner, Ted Cruz, but I appreciate how he used Trump's decision to skip the last debate to puncture the billionaire's balloon.
If there's one thing I've learned in my years of column writing, it's to have faith in voters. Sometimes they see something in a candidate I don't see. Sometimes there is a gulf between what they tell pollsters and what they do in the voting booth. The closer the election, the more sober the assessment.
While I am in the Anybody-but-Trump-or-Cruz camp, I have to believe that if either Trump or Cruz wins the GOP nod, it will be because he became a more viable candidate.
If neither wins the nomination (as I anticipate), it will be because GOP voters saw a brighter light — probably in Marco Rubio. The Florida senator's third-place showing — which also beat the polls — has sent a signal to supporters of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush: Here is your chance to nominate someone who won't tarnish the GOP brand.
Having come in at sixth place — behind Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who bowed out Wednesday — Bush seems out of gas. It's inexcusable for a candidate and the super PAC that supports him to have spent some $60 million without making Iowa's top tier. It's time for him to start planning his exit strategy.
Kasich and Christie both put their money in New Hampshire. Only one governor can make it out alive, but neither has been able to break through. One factor, I believe, is that Kasich and Christie keep talking about themselves and their political pasts, while Rubio looks forward and spoke of his political future. As he told his supporters Monday night, "We can either be greater than we've ever been or we can be a great nation in decline."
Cable news channels have been obsessed with Trump's ability to draw crowds and ratings. Trump showed style in his concession speech, but he must know now that he has to offer more substance to come in first. Letting voters fill in the blanks on your position can take you only so far.
Cruz understood the Iowa base, where voters weren't looking for a candidate with whom they could kick back a brew. The lone ideologue act won't work in the national league. The GOP senator who has failed to win the endorsement of a single fellow Republican senator will have to learn to make friends, or fall behind.
Since Trump threw his hat into the ring, the election has been about Trump and Not Trump — which meant less scrutiny of the Democratic primary, which is now down to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Clinton has years of experience, which in her case means years of sowing distrust. She voted for the Iraq war, before she ran against it. Taylor Gipple, a young questioner at a CNN town hall, summed up Clinton's challenge when he told her, "I've heard from quite a few people my age that think you're dishonest." Really, kid, it's not just people your age who think that.
As for Sanders, he is the Cruz of the left. A democratic socialist with no Democratic senator's endorsement, and no history of passing legislation with his own personal stamp. People say Cruz is extreme; Sanders actually thinks it would help low-skilled workers and the U.S. economy to more than double the national minimum wage.
Republicans know they've got a healthy chance of getting rid of both of their general election nightmares. Democrats have no such luck.