The yugest question looming over the presidential race, for months, has been whether Donald Trump can translate the larger-than-life celebrity that helped him pack arenas into actual votes.
Iowa Republicans suppled the first version of an answer on Monday night, and it is: No, not enough.
The billionaire businessman’s second-place finish in the Hawkeye State would have been unthinkable when he announced his candidacy last summer. Yet the kickoff caucuses, which award 1% of the delegates to the Republican National Convention, turn entirely on expectations. And Trump — who has both dominated recent Iowa polls and, more importantly, adopted winning as his personal ideology — collects no runner-up trophy.
That much was evident in the tone of what amounted to his concession speech, which followed a triumphant address from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the third-place finisher. “We’re just so happy with the way everything worked out,” Trump told supporters in Des Moines, looking as if he’d just quaffed some turned Trump wine. He then invoked his polling lead in New Hampshire, where he was headed immediately, and beat a hasty retreat from the stage.
As a spinmeister nonpareil, Trump could have played it differently (arguably, Rubio had just shown him the way). After three decades of his on-again, mostly off-again flirtation with bids for public office, the caucuses marked the first time he faced actual voters. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina — the other non-politicians in the field — had both faded into irrelevance. So Trump’s staying power could’ve represented a sort of moral victory. And his vote share, joined with that of the winning Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, amounts to 52%, a stark rebuke of the establishment candidates on offer. Also, Iowa’s predictive power in Republican presidential sweepstakes is highly suspect: Only two caucus winners in the last six contested events (dating back to 1980) have secured the nomination; two runners-up in that time have done the same.
But if Trump has evidently bought his own win-or-bust bluster, that suggests something about his appetite for an attritional slog toward the nomination, if that’s what the race becomes. Now New Hampshire, which is eight days away and where Trump enjoys a 20-plus point lead in recent polls, looms as a potentially dispositive moment for his candidacy.