Rubio couldn’t have asked for a much better result, either. Expect Rubio to use his strong finish to consolidate support in the center-right lane in New Hampshire. His quick reaction to the results sounded like a victory speech. His 23 percent tally far outdistanced his numbers in the polls, which put him at roughly 15 percent. Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich barely registered in Iowa even though the first two spent ample time here in the final week. (In an Urbandale precinct once considered a Bush stronghold, Rubio won 152 votes and Bush got 8.) And if Trump continues to be a major presence, he’s poised to hurt Cruz a little more than Rubio in the states to come—in particular, in South Carolina.
Indeed, Trump will still be a major player despite his disappointing showing. The biggest question is whether his collapse in Iowa will significantly deflate his numbers elsewhere. There’s reason to believe that Trump could lose New Hampshire, where he currently holds a commanding lead. As Rubio consolidates support, Trump loses some of his.
But Trump still has a floor of disaffected working-class voters who won’t be going away. In Southern states, those voters overlap significantly with Cruz supporters. Against his instincts, he gave a gracious, brief concession speech, showing he can learn from past mistakes. There was no Howard Dean-scream moment here. Trump still has opportunities to put victories on the board, but in the short term he’s Rubio’s best strategic friend.