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Iowa caucus results: Ted Cruz beats Donald Trump and Marco Rubio

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Ted Cruz has prevailed in the Iowa Republican caucuses. Cruz earned the support of around 28 percent of caucus-goers.

Donald Trump got about 24 percent of the vote, and Marco Rubio scored around 23 percent. Ben Carson and other candidates were far behind the top three.

Rubio emerged as the strongest of the establishment-friendly candidates, and his relatively strong finish in the state may cement his status as the mainstream alternative to Cruz and Trump.

Cruz's win is a surprise for pollsters, most of whom had been predicting a Trump victory. And it's a shock for Republican insiders, many of whom loathe Cruz as much as they loathe Trump. Cruz is a US senator, but he's not considered an establishment figure.

Monday's victory means Cruz must now fight a two-front war. On the one hand, he needs to maintain momentum against Trump, who has previously polled strongly in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and other early states. At the same time, he has to worry that the Republican establishment will rally around a single candidate — most likely Marco Rubio.

Next week's New Hampshire primary, then, will be a crucial test to see whether Cruz can secure his position as the new Republican frontrunner. It won't be easy. New Hampshire polls conducted prior to Monday night's Iowa caucuses showed Cruz with only about 12 percent of the vote. That's 20 points behind Donald Trump and barely ahead of rivals John Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio.

Cruz fought hard for evangelical votes

GOP Presidential Candidate Senator Ted Cruz Campaigns In Iowa Day Ahead Of State's Caucus Win McNamee/Getty Images

In recent election cycles, around 60 percent of caucus-goers have been evangelical Christians. As a result, social conservatives have done well there since at least 1988, when social conservative leader Pat Robertson scored a strong second-place finish in Iowa, beating the eventual nominee, then–Vice President George H.W. Bush.

This year, Cruz and Trump have fought hard for the allegiance of evangelical voters. An NBC poll published a couple of weeks ago had Cruz beating Trump among evangelicals by a 33 to 19 percent margin. But the candidates switched places last week, with Trump beating Cruz 37 to 20.

Cruz's appeal to evangelicals has been simple: I'm one of you; Donald Trump isn't. Cruz's pious Christianity offered a clear contrast to Trump, who has been married three times and has a long history in the casino business. Cruz has mocked the New York billionaire for talking about "Two Corinthians," a book of the Bible that any serious Christian would call Second Corinthians.

In recent weeks, Trump and Cruz have battled for the allegiance of well-known evangelical leaders. Bob Vander Plaats, an influential Iowa evangelical, endorsed Cruz in December. Cruz also scored an endorsement from Tony Perkins, the head of the Family Research Council. Perkins organized a December meeting of other evangelical leaders who overwhelmingly voted to back Cruz.

Not every evangelical leader has sided with Cruz, however. In a Saturday press release, Marco Rubio's campaign touted a list of 26 Iowa pastors who were endorsing the senator. Trump won the endorsement of Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the famous preacher and an evangelical leader in his own right.

We don't have a breakdown of how Iowa evangelicals voted on Monday night, but strong support among evangelical voters was almost certainly an important factor in Cruz's victory.

Iowa winners haven't always captured the nomination

Republican Candidates Speak At Sunshine Summit In Orlando
Rick Santorum won Iowa in 2012 but finished near the back of the pack in 2016.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The big worry for Cruz is that previous Iowa winners haven't always done well in later states. Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 but lost New Hampshire and the nomination to John McCain. Rick Santorum narrowly won the Iowa caucuses in 2012 but lost New Hampshire and the nomination to Mitt Romney. The kind of socially conservative messages that resonate with Iowa's evangelical voters don't necessarily play well elsewhere.

Cruz is in real danger of suffering the same fate. The RealClearPolitics poll average shows him a distant second to Donald Trump in New Hampshire. Even worse, Cruz is essentially tied with John Kasich in New Hampshire — and less than 2 points ahead of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

The big challenge for Cruz, then, is to convince New Hampshire voters, who care less about social issues than Iowans, that he's their guy. Luckily for Cruz, his platform is not as closely tied to socially conservative positions as the last two Republican winners in Iowa. Cruz is known for his strident opposition to Obamacare and illegal immigration, two hot-button issues in the Republican race.

Republican elites have to decide whether to back Cruz or fight him

GOP Presidential Candidate Sen. Marco Rubio Campaigns In Cedar Falls
Marco Rubio.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Cruz's victory will set off a furious debate within the Republican establishment. Republican elites have long hated Cruz, who has a reputation for promoting his own career at the expense of his fellow Republicans. So until Trump entered the race, it was widely assumed that Republican elites would line up to back one of his rivals, such as Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush.

But Trump's entry into the race changed the calculus for some Republican power brokers. Cruz may not be a team player, but he's still a member of the Senate with deep ties to the conservative movement. Trump, by contrast, is a complete outsider who has gleefully insulted Republican leaders.

So Cruz's victory might lead those who still see Trump as the biggest threat to rally to his side. Others, however, will likely hold out hope that the New Hampshire primary will elevate a more establishment-friendly candidate.