He only came in third place, but Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) is the big winner in Iowa. That’s not a “media” meme; it’s the truth, for three basic reasons:
1. Rubio vastly outperformed expectations, finishing at 23% after polling at 15% (and even that was a surge).
2. Unlike Donald Trump, Rubio has lots of room to grow his support as other candidates drop out;
3. Unlike Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Rubio has not alienated important sections of the electorate.
1. Outperforming expectations. Cruz is winning praise for his ground game and data operation. But Rubio–who, like Trump, ran a lackluster ground effort–closed better than both. He had the only memorable line of the last GOP debate: “There’s only one Savior and it’s not me. It’s Jesus Christ who came down to earth and died for our sins.” That resonated with late deciders, attracting religious voters without planting doubts among social moderates.
2. Room to grow. It is true that Rubio faces a crowded “establishment lane” in New Hampshire. But that lane, too, will start to narrow quickly. Trump, meanwhile, has been at a high plateau for weeks; recent polls suggest that he is not a second choice for many Republican voters. If voters elsewhere agree with Iowa caucus-goers that Rubio is the most electable of the candidates, he could consolidate “establishment” money and moderate support.
3. Alienating voters. Cruz’s victory in Iowa came at a cost. Attacks on “New York values” and explicit appeals to Christian faith mean that he will struggle to build the “Reagan coalition” he proclaimed on Monday night. Rubio courted social conservatives and the evangelical vote, but with a less confrontational style. As a result, he will face fewer challenges than Cruz reaching audiences outside Iowa–and outside the Republican Party.
That is not to say Rubio is the presumptive favorite to win the nomination. He has severe drawbacks. Unlike Cruz, he has not led the Republican opposition–and when he has tried (Gang of Eight), he has stumbled badly. Unlike Trump, the Florida senator has no executive experience beyond the state speaker’s gavel. He compensates with an overly intense rhetorical style.
But if Rubio improves and grows over the next several weeks, he has few limits.