Something really strange happened on the way to the Iowa Caucus.
The strange thing is not that Duck Dynasty devotee and much-despised Establishment nemesis Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) leapfrogged Donald Trump to take the top spot. Ted’s excellent adventure, which includes winning in spite of his stance against ethanol, was far more likely than it might have seemed.
First of all, predictive polling has become notoriously imprecise and that’s particularly true in the case of Iowa’s caucuses. As TIME pointed out, the “byzantine” nature of the caucus process makes it harder to get an accurate snapshot from a simple poll because it doesn’t account for precinct-level ebbs and flows in voter turnout.
Secondly, the Iowa GOP is all about the Evangelicals and Brother Ted bore the cross like no one else could—meaning completely without shame. He also secured the endorsement of Iowa’s Christian kingmaker and failed GOP gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats. And Ted’s father—Pastor Rafael— is both an outspoken preacher and a cheerleader for the Apocalypse. These assets offered a stark contrast with Trump, who doesn’t know his Bible or the proper etiquette for tithing. Ted also benefited mightily from the predictable deflation of Dr. Ben Carson’s bland balloon. And it didn’t hurt that “someone” in Cruz’s operation spread last-minute rumors about the good doctor’s sudden exit from the campaign. Not for nothing, Carson came a close second to Cruz in displaying considerable cross-bearing prowess. Thus, there was a lot of “crossover” among their supporters.
Finally, Iowa is actually something of a “kiss of death” for Republican candidates because it is such a demographic and ideological bubble, even in the rarefied world of homeschooling duck hunters, End Times enthusiasts and good ol’ fashioned fans of the old time religion. As Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum showed in 2008 and 2012, a win in Iowa acts more like disqualification for the general election than a momentum builder on the way to a glorious victory. And have no doubt that GOP “insiders” are just fine with the idea that Ted will wear his Iowa victory like a pair of concrete galoshes.
No, the truly strange thing is that, according to entrance polling by CBS News (yes, there is such a thing), Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) got a late boost from late-deciding voters. It was a big reason why he closed the gap on Trump. And it may be why Trump didn’t hold his lead with caucus-goers as they turned out in record numbers—many for the first time—to finally render judgment and pass the baton onto the voters of New Hampshire.
The key here is that despite months upon months of campaigning, retail politicking and a staggering $43 million spent on just television advertising, a significant portion of Hawkeye State Republicans made up their minds in the final week. And the CBS poll shows that many of late-breakers broke for the Neoconservative’s Boy Wonder in “the last few days” following the much-discussed FOX News debate that Donald Trump notably skipped.
Of course, correlation is not necessarily causation. But there is absolutely no doubt that the GOP Establishment has struggled mightily to find a candidate or an attack that will derail the Trump juggernaut since he quickly and efficiently steamrolled its first choice—Jeb Bush. Really, Trump’s terse dismissal of The Next Bush In Line hit the GOP right in its softest parts—the lingering fallout of its cataclysmic War on Iraq and on its deeply corrupting ties to its deep-pocketed donor class.
When Trump called Jeb a “puppet of his donors,” he summarily cut the strings between post-Citizens United puppeteers and their marionette of the moment. And when Trump hammered the stupidity of the Bush family’s legacy (and therefore the GOP’s legacy) in Iraq he also blew open the rift between the Neocons and the GOP’s latent Libertarian cadre of anti-imperial America-Firsters.
Trump’s candid attacks made him a far more problematic option than their other antagonist, the aforementioned Cruz. That’s because Cruz is a heavily-stringed candidate with ties to both Wall Street and Big Oil. Trump’s freedom to turn on the GOP’s bevy of big donors is a really big problem.
But perhaps most shockingly, Trump also engaged in a series of skirmishes with the GOP’s most important organ, its most direct conduit to “the people” and its most effective mechanism for “changing narratives” and/or refocusing “the optics” to massage the perceptions of the American people.
That’s right. Trump danced on the true third rail of GOP politics. Trump took on FOX News—repeatedly.
While the initial dust-ups with Megyn Kelly—the exceptionally bright, perfectly-crafted centerpiece of the network’s smorgasbord of biased bloviators and fake experts—did little to derail Trump’s momentum, the last episode ended up with Trump bowing out of the final, pre-caucus debate. He did so ostensibly on the grounds that Megyn Kelly was unfair and because Trump was, according to prevailing narratives on both the unreflective Left and on the quietly ecstatic Establishment Right, afraid to face “tough questions” from a big, bad blonde named Megyn.
On its surface, that spin is inherently sexist. In presupposes that a woman cannot be intellectually intimidating and that a man who might be intimidated by a woman is a wimp or, at least, not very masculine. It was a favorite of storyline of self-identified progressives, by the way. More importantly, though, this narrative completely missed the even stranger thing that happened on the way to the debate—the issuance of an Onion-style faux press release that taunted Trump with bogus, supposedly tongue-in-cheek accusations about his weakness in the face of international challenges. Even more strangely, the little missive insulted his supporters, many of whom are likely to be FOX viewers.
Sources told Politico that the unprecedented “teasing” of Trump was FOX Chairman Roger Ailes’ attempt to “redirect the heat” away from the network’s rising star. But long-time observers of the mainstream media will struggle to find another instance of a major news network mocking a major candidate of a major political party with a fake press release.
With the GOP Establishment wringing its hands raw over their party’s hostile takeover by a stringless and seemingly anti-interventionist candidate, it does stand to reason that Ailes—who is, for all intents and purposes, the de facto chairman of the GOP—saw an opportunity to “redirect” Trump away from the debate and, perhaps, derail the head of steam Trump was building in a series of polls leading up to the Iowa Caucus.
Make no mistake … Trump was moving on up in the days before the debate.
According to RealClearPolitics’ poll tracker, Trump was up between 7% – 10% in three different polls and he’d hit 31%, 31% and 32% to take the lead away from Cruz, who stalled in the mid-twenties. Those numbers were released on the day of the debate in question and in those polls Rubio languished at 10% in one poll, and sat at 14% and 18% in the others.
At the time, many speculated that Trump was pulling a fast one on the field by bowing out and letting the circular firing squad retrain its sights on his closest competition—Ted Cruz. But Trump was also very clear that his final, terminal objection to the FOX debate was not the presence of Megyn Kelly. Instead, the final straw was that sophomoric attempt at shaming him with that ham-handed attempt at humor.
Really, it is amazing that the “journalists” at FOX News didn’t walk out of the newsroom in protest of such a decidedly unprofessional and unprecedented ploy. Well, then again … it is FOX News, right? But maybe that “it is FOX News, after all” sense of the network was all the cover Ailes needed to throw a wrench into the Trump machine, right?
Once again, correlation is not causation. Unless someone comes forward with a memo or an on-the-record admission, we may never know the machinations that led to the press release. Just like we may never fully know if Rubio’s surge of late support was a response to Trump’s glaring absence from the debate. Trump certainly thinks his absence, along with a lackluster ground-game, may have cost him the top spot.
We do know, however, that Rubio was widely seen as the clear winner of that debate and among the rest of the uninspiring field he was able to stand out like Luke Skywalker in the bar scene from Star Wars. Megyn Kelly followed up with an effusive post-Iowa interview of the third-place “winner” and Rush Limbaugh called him a “full-throated” conservative. That “throatiness” and his humble roots, perfectly programmed oratory skills, soft-focused good looks and “just-enough” ethnic flavor make him a made-to-order alternative to the abrasive, smirking, pedantic and almost car salesmen-like timbre of Ted Cruz.
Apparently, Iowa’s Republicans—at least, those who don’t make Evangelicalism the Alpha and the Omega of their political decision-making—felt the same way as the Establishment. Whether it is the culmination of a cunning plan to stump Trump or just the outcome of buyer’s remorse in front of their peers, their late choice of Rubio gave him a spin-able third place and gave the GOP’s cadre of cavernously-pocketed donors a new lease on their lives of investing in politicians.
It’s a big deal for the biggest dealmakers, 500 of whom just attended another Koch Brothers conclave and, for the most part, bemoaned the lack of viable options on the shelves in their personal supermarket of democracy. As Leigh Ann Caldwell of NBC News reported, there is widespread discomfort with both Trump’s stringless candidacy and with the large sums of money still wadded-up still in their pockets. The Koch’s “network” of donors has a $889 million budget for the 2016 election cycle. Thus far, reports Caldwell, “they’ve spent less than half of it—$400 million—in 2015” and none of that amount on presidential politics.
They want to spend. Just not yet.
And those big donors who went ahead and poured over $100 million into Jeb’s empty vessel campaign just watched it get spent with an almost unprecedented ineffectuality. They’re ready to jump to a viable alternative. And Rubio—who may have gotten a little bankshot help from Roger Ailes and even from his campaign’s part in ginning up the Dr. Ben Carson rumor-mill—is certainly the guy with the demonstrated willingness to soak-up cash from billionaires and toe the Neoconservative lines they want to draw in Middle Eastern sand. And his team is adept at playing fast and loose with IRS restrictions on non-profit status to wash campaign cash through their well-developed laundry machinery.
And that’s the kind of gold coin-operated political machinery that makes the GOP Establishment feel at home and feel like giving. Some are even holding their noses to dip into their pockets and prolong the candidacy of former Trump “bromancer” and unlikely nominee Ted Cruz as he escalates his feud with the counter-attacking Trump. It’s yet another possible bankshot that illustrates the extent to which Trump has broken up the Grand Old Party and—thus far—nullified their grand old game of gaming the system in their favor.
As big-time donor and Rubio enthusiast Frank VanderSloot told Bryan Clark of Idaho Post Register, “I don’t even want to talk about Donald Trump. He’s a disaster.”