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2 winners and 3 losers from the Iowa caucuses

"I ch-ch-ch-oose Cruz."
"I ch-ch-ch-oose Cruz."
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

In one very literal sense, there are only two winners of the Iowa caucuses most years. And by that understanding, Ted Cruz definitely won the Republican race. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, ended the night in a draw.

But the literal winner of the race basically doesn't matter. Iowa just doesn't supply that many delegates. The value of winning Iowa isn't to gain those delegates; it's to shape media expectations and set the stage for future wins in states that actually have people in them. And by that standard, Iowa can produce a great number of "winners" who didn't come in first.

It's a dumb way to pick a president, but it's the one we've got. With that in mind, here are the two candidates who left Iowa as stronger contenders, and three who lost ground. Oh, and as for Clinton and Bernie Sanders — in a tie this close, no one has really won or lost.

Winner: Ted Cruz

Might as well start with the obvious. Ted Cruz won because he got more votes than the other guys. It wasn't a huge victory, with only 4 percentage points and fewer than 6,000 votes separating him from second-place finisher Donald Trump as of this writing, but it was a surprise. The last tracking average from HuffPost Pollster had Trump leading Cruz by 6.9 points:

The Des Moines Register's final poll, which has historically been extremely accurate and is conducted by the hugely respected pollster Ann Selzer, had Trump beating Cruz, 28 percent to 23 percent.

Cruz outperformed those expectations, and by all appearances he did it through superior organization and outreach. As early as October, Cruz had put in place county chairs for each of Iowa's 99 counties. He put together a dorm housing up to 100 volunteers in Des Moines so he could get people outside the state to come and campaign.

He did extensive outreach to evangelicals, including a "99 pastors" outreach strategy to each county, and garnered an endorsement from influential Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, who had helped the two previous Iowa winners (Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum) win their races. He also got backing from Iowa Rep. Steve King, who's popular with Tea Party types and especially immigration opponents throughout the state.

That all showed up in Cruz's brief polling lead over Trump in late December/early January, but it apparently wasn't fully captured by the most recent polling. And Cruz's decision to send possibly fraudulent fliers to Iowa voters listing their and their neighbors' "voting scores," while prompting considerable outrage this past weekend, didn't alienate enough people to secure a loss. Hell, they may even have helped him win.

Winner: Marco Rubio

Yes, it was ridiculous and arrogant for Rubio to deliver what was in effect a victory speech in response to what was in fact a third-place finish. Yes, it's kind of silly to act as though winning third is as big a victory as, you know, winning.

But it's also true that Rubio exceeded expectations, and exceeding expectations is candidates' main goal in Iowa and New Hampshire. Bill Clinton became president in no small part because he finished a surprisingly strong second in New Hampshire in 1992, declared himself the "Comeback Kid," and rode the ensuing momentum to the nomination. Rubio is in a good position to do the same.

Rubio was a clear third to Trump in Cruz in the polls leading up to the caucuses, but he was still quite far behind. He was averaging 17.4 percent — 6.4 percent behind Cruz and 13.3 percent behind Trump. But as of this writing, he was at 23 percent — only a point behind Trump and 5 points behind Cruz. He got much, much closer to victory than expected, and basically tied for second.

That could be enough. Rubio is currently splitting the establishment vote four ways in New Hampshire. He's in fourth, behind John Kasich and slightly ahead of Jeb Bush and Chris Christie:

Combined, the four candidates get 36.1 points — enough to beat Trump. Rubio's not going to manage a unification that complete, but he can expect to gain supporters from the Kasich, Bush, and Christie camps who have been looking for the most viable establishment contender. And after Iowa, he can expect Cruz to gain supporters and Trump to lose them. That will mean the leading candidate will have a lower share of the vote than Trump, the current frontrunner, is posting, making it easier for someone polling in the single digits like Rubio to surge into the lead.

This is all speculation at this point, of course. But Rubio at least has the potential to make himself the consensus establishment favorite in the next week or two. If he pulls it off, he just might have an outside shot at the nomination.

Loser: Donald Trump

Donald Trump lost. That mere fact, for a candidate whose persona is so built around being a winner, about crushing and humiliating his opponents, is damaging in a way it's not for anyone else.

The situation is made worse still by Trump's healthy lead over Cruz in the polls heading into the caucuses. Trump didn't just lose — he lost when he was expected to win. And given that Iowa is nothing more than an elaborate scheme to manipulate media narratives, that's particularly rough.

Trump didn't help matters with his surprisingly civil and normal concession speech, in which he graciously congratulated Cruz, praised all the other candidates, and meekly suggested that he beat the initial expectations set when he entered the race in June 2015, when "Donald Trump for president" was treated by most media as a publicity stunt, not a serious candidacy. He wasn't wrong. But commentators weren't judging against June's expectations; they were judging against January's.

The speech also made Trump seem like something he hasn't resembled all campaign: a normal politician. The media, and his supporters, expect him to subvert every norm expected of leading candidates, to be meaner and more brazen and less predictable than the competition. He wasn't. Who knows if this will matter in a couple of days — it wasn't memorable enough to be a "Dean Scream"–style debacle that actually hurts Trump's campaign — but it certainly didn't do anything to recover his lost momentum.

It's important to not overstate things. Trump still leads in New Hampshire. He still leads nationally. He still leads in South Carolina:

And it's likely that much of Trump's loss tonight is attributable to inferior organization. Cruz put together a top-notch ground game, while Trump hired a precinct captain who criticized Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from entering the US on the grounds that Bush did 9/11. Ground game matters a lot in Iowa, but it's thought to be less important in later contests:

After Barack Obama's surprise Iowa win in 2008, he quickly started leading the polls in New Hampshire and was expected to beat Hillary Clinton again. She defied those expectations. Don't discount Trump's potential to do the same after Cruz's surprise win.

Loser: Martin O'Malley

As of this writing, with 93 percent of precincts reporting, Martin O'Malley has secured 0.6 percent of delegates in the Democratic caucuses. He has also dropped out of the race, sending this email to supporters:

O'Malley comes in for a lot of mockery, but he was an excellent governor of Maryland, expanding mass transit, passing gun control, a state DREAM Act, and same-sex marriage, and raising the gas tax and income taxes. He pioneered global budgeting, a promising approach to cutting health costs without compromising care. He had a proposal to expand Social Security that was more ambitious than Bernie Sanders's, a tough plan for financial reform, and an immigration plan that uniquely among the candidates included calls for increased immigration in the future — and not just among the highly skilled either.

He's a solid center-left wonk with tons of sensible ideas. I'll sincerely, unironically miss his presence in the race.

Loser: Jeb Bush

Bush has focused his campaign on New Hampshire, where he's doing significantly better than he did in Iowa; he's still in a pathetic fifth place, but 8.6 percent is a whole lot better than the 2.8 percent he wound up garnering in Iowa.

The problem is that what's good for Marco Rubio is almost definitionally bad for Jeb Bush. They're competing for the same pool of voters: moderates and traditional conservatives who are alarmed by the rise of Trump and think Cruz is extreme and unelectable. That pool is currently divided, and with Rubio's close third-place win, he appears well-placed to unify it. That unification will almost certainly come at Bush's expense.

Bush's paltry finish is especially pathetic if you consider exactly how much money he and his allied Super PACs (most notably Right to Rise) spent. By January 26, Team Jeb had spent $14.9 million on ads in Iowa. By comparison, Rubio only spent $11.8 million, Cruz only $6 million, and Trump a paltry $3.3 million. So Jeb didn't just lose — he lost despite a large advantage in ad spending, and leaves Iowa without tens of millions of dollars in resources he could be using elsewhere.

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