On Monday, after nearly a year of polls that documented Donald Trump’s meteoric rise, Iowa voters cast the first ballots of the 2016 presidential election. And he lost.
This defeat, of course, marks the beginning of the end of his candidacy, the restoration of order to the Republican Party and paves the way for a nominee who can win in November. Or at least that’s how some pundits have portrayed it. Yet, as Trump has just learned, repeatedly saying something still doesn’t make it true.
In fact, all three of those propositions have a complicated relationship with reality. First, losing in Iowa does not necessarily spell doom for Trump. After all, he was competing on highly unfavorable turf. The Republican electorate in Iowa is dominated by evangelical Christian voters — a poor fit for a Manhattan billionaire. Over the past several months, Iowa has consistently been the only state to show weakness in Trump’s polling lead. His last-minute leads were perhaps a diversion from earlier signs of solid support for a more religious choice — initially Ben Carson, before switching to the eventual victor, Ted Cruz. Moreover, the Iowa caucus is often won through superior organization, while Trump has predicated his campaign on a national, media-heavy strategy. If there’s a place Trump would lose, it would be Iowa.
Indeed, no one should forget that Trump retains a massive lead in the next contest, New Hampshire. Although his blunted momentum from Iowa will likely diminish his advantage, it remains doubtful that another candidate could close the gap over the next week. Renewed by a triumph in New Hampshire, who knows what route the Trump campaign could take? Ever since his initial declaration in June, Trump has defied all expectations — and he may continue to do so. Make no mistake, his odds of obtaining the nomination have been dealt a notable blow, but they remain higher than anyone could have anticipated.
Regardless, even if Trump fails to win the nomination, the Republican Party will not suddenly be cleansed of his influence. Instead, the constituencies that he has attracted may continue to push the party in a Trump-like direction. Trump has revealed a potent populist streak in the Republican base; his supporters may be anti-Washington, but they are also uncomfortable with corporate power and the traditional conservative establishment. While the Trump base does substantially overlap with the Tea Party, it is not a perfect fit. Future candidates will take notice of this inconsistent, perhaps substituting ideological purity for the populist flourishes of Trump.
His hateful rhetoric, too, cannot be neatly put away. The dangerous effects of Trump’s tirades against ethnic and religious minorities will persist in the national conversation. Once a presidential candidate can remain a frontrunner after proposing to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, the door has been opened to proud demonstrations of Islamophobia and racism as part of our political debate. Beyond the bluster and entertainment, this remains as a genuinely regrettable facet of the Trump campaign.
These ideas will linger. And so, too, might Trump. It is not hard to imagine that a losing Trump would demand a primetime speaking slot at the Republican National Convention, possibly with a revived threat of going third party. He might even do it — depending how well he did in the primary race — but he could hurt the GOP even if he doesn’t. Throughout the fall campaign, he is to likely remain a presence in the media, as a walking reminder of the Republican Party’s current strains of extremism.
That brings us, finally, to Trump’s alternatives. Let’s consider the winner of the Iowa Caucus, Senator Ted Cruz. He rode a wave of conservative energy to win, reflecting his intensely ideological record. During his time in Congress, he has emerged as the leading voice for the GOP’s Tea Party faction, and played a major role in the 2013 government shutdown. Due to his willingness to attack the purity of his fellow Republicans, he has earned the ire of his Senate colleagues. It doesn’t stop there: his views on abortion, same-sex marriage and climate change, to name just a few, all fall far outside of the American mainstream. If Cruz is the nominee, it seems clear that he will stick to his guns — literally — and run an unabashedly conservative campaign. Do Republicans really want to bet the White House on a hope for record turnout from the party’s right flank?
But maybe there is one more potential savior. Florida Senator Marco Rubio — who has enjoyed the most hyped third-place finish in Iowa caucus history — has often been heralded as the Republican Party’s moderate savior from its Trump woes. Rubio is charismatic, young and Hispanic; the perfect contrast to Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Further, his life story is compelling, and he tends to give measured, sensible responses to voter questions. Yet, he is not the candidate he is depicted as.
After all, Rubio won his Senate seat in 2010 as a Tea Party candidate, and over the course of the Republican primary, he has returned to this conservative posture. Indeed, his views do not substantially differ from Cruz — they both oppose abortion with no exception for rape, they both oppose marriage equality and they both reject climate science. Even on immigration, Rubio has jeopardized his appeal to Hispanic voters by flip-flopping on his prior support of comprehensive immigration reform. Indeed, Rubio’s perception as a moderate comes down to little more than tone. It will be difficult to maintain this under the spotlight of the general election. Is he the strongest candidate to put up against Hillary or Bernie? Probably. Is he as strong as perceived? Definitely not.
In the end, it’s difficult to resist the urge to make the results from Iowa more important than they actually are. Yes, they change the race, but they do not completely remake it; Trump is still a contender. And no matter what happens, he has already defined and shaped this election. That, perhaps, is not a small consolation prize: for better or worse, we now live in a world where our history books will have to mention Donald J. Trump.
Kevin Kowalewski is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Democratic Dialogue appears alternate Thursdays this semester.