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Why the Iowa caucus was a win for Marco Rubio, even though he lost to Ted Cruz

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The media has been predicting for months that Marco Rubio was on the verge of breaking out of the pack in the Republican presidential race. Just in time for the first votes to be cast in the Iowa caucuses, it finally happened.

Rubio didn't come in first in the caucuses. But according to the bizarre way that the political world interprets caucus results, he still "won." As Vox's Andrew Prokop explains:

Things are not so straightforward as "the first place person did the best, the second-place person did the second best." Instead, each candidate is graded on a different curve, according to the expectations the political world has for them in Iowa. If you manage to impress these people, you'll get a boost afterward. If you fail to do so, you'll become an afterthought.

Rubio managed to impress. Going into the Iowa caucuses, he was expected to win somewhere between 15 and 17 percent of voters. It was expected that he'd place third — behind Trump and Cruz — and that he'd be a few points behind the second-place winner.

Instead, he got around 23 percent — coming within striking distance of Donald Trump. Political junkies call that overperforming. And it's going to give Rubio a lot of attention from the media, and from donors, in the days to come.

Where the Rubio surge came from

Conventional wisdom holds that a lot of Iowa caucus voters make up their minds in the last few days before they vote. In 2012, that led to a surprise come-from-behind victory for Rick Santorum.

Rubio couldn't do quite that well. But he certainly gained support in the closing hours of the Iowa campaign. He won about 23 percent of the vote — way more than the 17 percent he had in polling averages.

And according to entrance polls, 28 percent of caucus-goers who made up their minds in the last week decided to support Rubio — more than any other candidate (though Cruz was a close second among these voters).

Close political observers were predicting a Rubio surge before the results came in Monday night. Anecdotal reports from the campaign trail in Iowa, like this Politico article from over the weekend, indicated that Rubio was campaigning and being greeted with enthusiasm (which was mostly notable since Rubio's been knocked for not putting in enough face time in Iowa).

And late last week, Ted Cruz's campaign pulled all its ad money from ads attacking Trump and put it toward ads attacking Rubio — a sign that it was feeling threatened.

How the Rubio "surge" is both a media creation and a real thing

At this point, "political reporters say Marco Rubio is about to catch fire" is something of a running joke. Pundits said Rubio won the first Republican debate, and it resulted in a polling surge for Ben Carson. Many (Vox included) said he also won the second Republican debate, and it resulted in a mini surge for Carly Fiorina. When Carson finally slipped below second place in early December, Rubio looked like he'd be the beneficiary — only to be overtaken by Ted Cruz.

But unlike polling surges, an overperformance in Iowa actually matters. It comes with delegates attached. And more importantly, it comes as the Republican establishment is scrambling to pose a viable alternative to Trump and Cruz.

Rubio desperately needs to become the consensus candidate of the Republican establishment in order to stick it out versus Trump and Cruz. Everyone expected him to outperform the other candidates in the "establishment lane" (Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich) in Iowa. But until recently, that wasn't quite enough for Republican donors to switch their support to Rubio from, say, Bush.

By beating expectations in Iowa, Rubio just made a decent case that he is an establishment candidate who voters can actually support. That might be a compelling pitch to Republican donors.

This is the bizarre thing about the Iowa caucus "expectations game." It starts out being something totally made up. But it ends up having very real consequences indeed.