It was only a branch scratching against a window in the storm. That’s how Republican leaders would like to see the presidential campaign of Donald Trump now that Iowa has made him smaller and less mysterious. “Donald Trump Isn’t Real” is the headline on David Brooks’ New York Times column today; “Dead Clown Walking” reads the front page of the New York Daily News. Mr. Trump is both the Wicked Witch (melting!) and the Wizard (just a little man making it up as he goes along) in “The Wizard of Oz.” Or he’s Orson Welles’ character in “The Third Man,” introduced as a huge, looming shadow but quickly reduced to being chased through the sewers of Vienna.
Ted Cruz’s victory in the Iowa caucuses can be written off, for now, as a quirk of a state dominated by the evangelical Protestants who previously backed Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. To the relief of Republicans who want someone “electable” against Hillary Clinton (still the overwhelming favorite on the Democratic side), Marco Rubio was a strong third, and he carried five counties that went to eventual nominee Mitt Romney in 2012—including Polk (Des Moines); next-door, suburban Dallas; and Johnson (Iowa City). He showed strength in the relatively urban, well-educated and religiously diverse counties that better reflect later primaries (such as New Hampshire).
Still, it’s premature to say that Rubio has clinched things. Together, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and fellow “outsider” Ben Carson got more than 60 percent in Iowa, and 55 percent even in urban Polk County. Mr. Trump narrowly won Dubuque County in the east and Woodbury County (Sioux City) in the west—both with Catholic pluralities and possible harbingers of strength in smaller, blue-collar cities like Manchester, New Hampshire.
Marco Rubio may be able to consolidate big cities and (more important) big suburban counties to replicate Mitt Romney’s Republican primary coalition of 2012, but Donald Trump may not be as easy to brush off as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Mr. Trump has real differences with Mr. Rubio in substance, if not detailed policy, voicing a harder line on immigration, more skepticism about military intervention abroad (though air bombing is probably fine) and a promise not to touch Social Security (“reform,” such as raising the retirement age, is dear to the establishment types now rooting for Mr. Rubio).
Donald Trump’s vague economic populism and spotty commitment to social conservatism on matters like fighting same-sex marriage may be more attractive than Marco Rubio’s conservative orthodoxy to suburban voters in major primaries like Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. Mitt Romney carried the latter two states by less than five points against Rick Santorum in 2008. As I argued in an earlier post (“Split Urban Vote May Lead to Cruz Nomination”), even a Trump who limps through the primary season with 15 percent could cost Mr. Rubio some major contests.
Marco Rubio’s strategy of late has been to ape Donald Trump and Ted Cruz as much as he can, straying from his formerly optimistic message in favor of apocalyptic visions and tougher language on foreign policy (though his commitment to Bush-style interventionism has him promising to send more people to Guantanamo rather than adopting the Cruz strategy of simply carpet-bombing Syria). Mr. Rubio’s harshness may still allow an opening for John Kasich in New Hampshire—or a win for “comeback kid” Donald Trump, especially if Mr. Trump makes a swerve and campaigns as someone less angry and more conciliatory than Marco Rubio. He’s shown no hesitation to reinvent himself before.