WEST DES MOINES, Iowa – Senator Ted Cruz won the Iowa caucuses on Monday night, capitalizing on his evangelical appeal and superior campaign operation to deal a significant defeat to Donald Trump, whose entire reputation has been built on being “a winner.”
Cruz led Trump, 27.7 percent to 24.3 percent, with 98 percent reporting. Senator Marco Rubio secured a surprisingly strong third place with 23 percent, which could help him make the case to the fractured party establishment to unite behind him to stop the two leading outsider candidates.
“God bless the great state of Iowa!” Cruz said. “Tonight is a victory for every American who’s watched in dismay as career politicians in both parties refused to listen and failed to keep their commitments to the people.”
In a three-minute speech after the results came in, Trump appeared humbled even as he said that “everybody” told him not to go to Iowa but he ignored the advice to try and compete.
“We finished second,” he said, congratulating his opponents. “I want to tell you something. I’m honored. I’m really honored.”
“Iowa, we love you, we thank you. You’re special,” he continued, before adding, “I think I might come here and buy a farm.’’
Iowa Republicans in record numbers packed into 1,681 precincts in libraries, private homes, and high schools, marking their votes on scraps of paper, the first electoral evidence in this volatile primary that has revealed anger and thirst for outside leadership in the Republican ranks.
The victory gave the Texas senator a major shot of momentum in what is expected to be a long nominating contest. It also punctures the Trump bubble, at least temporarily, indicating that Trump may face trouble transforming his unconventional campaign into an enduring political movement.
With an early morning snowstorm in the forecast for Tuesday, the candidates were rushing Monday night to board flights and quickly get to New Hampshire, where the focus now turns to what is certain to be an extraordinary eight days in American politics. Trump has dominated in the polls there, and now more urgently needs victory.
Trump has cast a long shadow over the Republican race, but Monday night was the first test of whether his large rallies and durable lead in the polls represent a real political movement with staying power. He was attempting to bring large swaths of first-time caucusgoers out on a cold winter’s night, relying on a coalition of more moderate, less religious voters than those who reliably caucus every four years in Iowa.
In the early entrance polls, taken from about 1,000 caucusgoers, Trump did best among those without a college degree, those who consider themselves moderates, and those who were first-time caucusgoers. About half indicated that they wanted a president who was not part of the establishment.
More than 60 percent of the GOP electorate identified itself as evangelical or born-again Christian. Cruz — who was banking on broad support among pastors — did not dominate among that key constituency, splitting it with Trump and Rubio.
But 42 percent of voters said “shared my values” was a top quality — and only 5 percent said Trump “shared my values” in the entrance poll.
Cruz has staked much of his campaign on performing well in Iowa, and on Monday he announced that he had accomplished the rare feat of visiting all 99 counties in the state. Cruz had the most robust operation, housing people from around the country in “Camp Cruz” and spending the past year trying to build a loyal network of evangelical pastors.
That base — and an army of what the campaign has said includes 12,000 volunteers — helped him surge to the top of polls in December, but he began to drop over the past few weeks amid fresh attacks from Trump.
Rubio’s finish carries him into New Hampshire with some momentum, distinguishing him from the rest of a crowded field of more moderate candidates, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Ohio Governor John Kasich.
“This is the moment they said would never happen,” Rubio said at his election night party. “They told me I needed to wait my turn, that I needed to wait in line….But tonight here in Iowa the people sent a big message. This is not a time for waiting.”
“Iowa thank you so much,” he concluded. “New Hampshire, we will see you in the morning.”
The trio of governors, realizing they were not going to have a strong showing, were not even in Iowa for the results, opting to spend the night in New Hampshire instead.
On Monday, the candidates spent the day driving all around the state, voices growing hoarse as they held last-minute events aimed at boosting turnout.
The Iowa caucuses rely on a system that rewards turning out the loyal supporters willing to give up several hours of their time.
Unlike a primary system where voters head to the polls throughout the day, the caucuses here require participants to show up at local precincts at 7 p.m. and sit through speeches from supporters of the candidates. Then they cast their votes on pieces of paper.
Despite a snowstorm expected to start in western Iowa in the early evening, party officials announced a record turnout following a campaign that has generated historic television ratings and newfound interest in a riveting political race. More than 180,000 people turned out for the caucuses, shattering the previous record of about 121,000 in 2012.
The voting in Iowa kicked off a campaign that so far has been marked by questionable — perhaps even factually inaccurate — claims, rhetoric designed to induce anger and fear, and a scramble for dominance on Twitter and cable TV.
In the final days, the race was jarred by Trump’s decision not to participate in the final debate before the caucuses. His decision — which resulted from a dispute with Fox News and its anchor Megyn Kelly — baffled many longtime political observers. He was passing on an opportunity to deliver his closing argument to a key audience, and he risked seeming like he was shirking from a fight.
But polling in the final days indicated that his decision had little effect on the race. The final poll from the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg Politics, part of which was conducted after the debate, had Trump back in the lead, with Cruz trailing by five points.
In a field that was once as large as 17, many remaining candidates — starving for money and lacking attention — could soon drop out. While Iowa has a poor track record at picking the GOP’s nominee, it historically has played a role in winnowing the field.
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky has struggled in a time when the mood of the party has diverted away from the libertarian strand that was once en vogue.
Former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina caught attention with several strong debate performances, but has been unable to translate those into any on-the-ground momentum.
In the fall, neurosurgeon Ben Carson shook up the race when he jumped in the polls and threatened Trump’s front-runner status. But his campaign, built largely through evangelical support, faltered when the race turned toward foreign policy in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. He also went on a lengthy book tour in the middle of his campaign.
The winners of the past two Iowa caucuses — former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in 2008 and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum in 2012 — were also in the contest but have failed to rekindle their past strength. Just after the results came in, Huckabee announced he was dropping out of the race.
At Trump’s election night party, his supporters -- decked in Trump shirts and jackets as they sipped on beer and wine for several hours -- were shocked by the loss. Some cried. Others rolled their eyes and downplayed the results.
“It’s just heart breaking,” said Laura Hannam, a 50-year-old dental hygienist from Waukee, Iowa. “He really wanted to make America great again.”
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.