DES MOINES — One winner from the caucuses here on Monday evening is self-evident:
Texas Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzConservatism's worst enemy? The Freedom Caucus. Republicans giving Univision the cold shoulder: report How 'Big Pharma' stifles pharmaceutical innovation MORE emerged as the victor in the Republican contest by a modest but clear margin.
Cruz rallied evangelicals and other “courageous conservatives” to his banner with his fervent opposition to President Obama and speeches decrying a drift away from traditional social values. He was also helped by a ground game that was widely seen as the best among Republican candidates.
But aside from Cruz, who leaves Iowa happier, and whose political capital was depleted on Monday?
Former secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump tweets: 'Trump Russia story is a hoax' Path to 60 narrows for Trump pick Overnight Cybersecurity: New questions for House Intel chair over WH visit | Cyber war debate heats up | Firm finds security flaws in 'panic buttons' MORE
Monday was far from a comfortable night for Clinton — as the time passed 2 a.m. on the East Coast, no result had been declared in the Democratic race, and the former secretary of State was clinging to a lead of only 0.3 percentage points over her left-wing rival, Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders: Trump budget ‘must be defeated’ The Hill's 12:30 Report Sanders will 'absolutely' work with Trump to lower prescription drug costs MORE.
So why is she a winner? Because she didn’t lose.
Clinton leaves Iowa with her standing intact as the clear favorite to win the Democratic nomination. She faces a struggle in the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9, where Sanders holds a large polling lead. But as the race turns south and west beyond that, Clinton is in a much better position, in part because of her strong support among non-white Democrats.
Sanders needs to deliver a seismic shock at some point if he is to derail Clinton. He came close here but didn’t quite make it. Advantage Clinton.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
There is no inherent contradiction in listing both Sanders and Clinton as winners. The Vermont senator racked up a very strong showing, coming from next-to-nowhere against the most famous woman in Democratic politics.
Even if he is ultimately relegated to second place, the closeness of the result demonstrates that there is a big market for Sanders’s ideas. He also leaves Iowa with full campaign coffers and remains the favorite to win New Hampshire.
Sanders is still an outsider in the bigger battle for the nomination, but his stature has been much enhanced.
Rubio came within about 1 percentage point of pushing Trump into third place, in the process outperforming his opinion poll ratings by a significant margin.
More to the point, Rubio has copper-fastened his status as the establishment-friendly alternative to Trump and Cruz.
“I think it’s a three-person race leaving here,” Rubio spokesman Alex Conant told MSNBC Monday evening. “If you don’t want Donald Trump or Ted Cruz to be the nominee, you better get on board with Marco Rubio.”
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and other Cruz supporters
A Trump win would have left King red-faced. The conservative Iowa congressman, a noted foe of illegal immigration who first won election to the House in 2002, went all-in for Cruz, endorsing him in mid-November and appearing with him on the campaign trail in the closing stretch. The result was a sweet vindication.
The same was true for Steve Deace, an Iowan who is a growing force on the conservative talk radio landscape. Deace endorsed Cruz back in August, appeared at this rallies and even served as a precinct captain on caucus night.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulSenate takes up NATO membership for Montenegro Overnight Defense: Civilian casualties raise questions about rules of engagement | Air Force nominee set for hearing | Senate takes up NATO membership for Montenegro Feehery: Freedom Caucus follies MORE (R-Ky.)
These two candidates, temperamentally and ideologically very different, both performed broadly in line with their poll ratings. Carson scored about nine percent support and Paul roughly half that much.
That’s not an embarrassment for either man, but the chances of them somehow forcing their way into the top tier of the field are vanishingly small.
Businessman Donald Trump
The business mogul had led most polls, nationally and in Iowa, for months, but he failed his first real test. Defeat here is a big blow to Trump, puncturing any sense that he could roll over the rest of the field on his way to the nomination.
Trump sought to put a brave face on his loss, looking ahead to New Hampshire and promising he would ultimately win the nomination.
But questions will now grow much sharper over whether the Trump phenomenon is for real.
2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R)
Sarah Palin threw her support behind Trump in the final days of his Iowa campaign. His defeat further reduces the luster of a one-time conservative star who has been in decline for some time. Terry Branstad did not formally endorse any candidate, but he did deliver vigorous and sustained criticism of Cruz. The Texas senator’s win serves as a rebuke to that effort.
GOP moderates not named Marco Rubio
Iowa is not favorable terrain for centrist Republicans, and it proved that again on Monday evening. Several establishment-friendly candidates were hoping for a decent enough showing to present a positive narrative as the New Hampshire primary beckons on Feb. 9.
None of them got it. Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich and Chris Christie all failed to top three percent.
Rubio’s strong showing deepens the already-considerable problems facing these candidates, as the establishment might now finally coalesce around him.
GOP social conservatives not named Ted Cruz
It was the end of the road for Mike Huckabee, who won the caucuses here in 2008 but secured less than 2 percent support this time around. He announced the end of his campaign as soon as the results became clear. Rick Santorum, the 2012 winner, did even worse. Santorum intends to fight on — his campaign announced plans for a 46-county tour of South Carolina.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D)
To no-one’s great surprise, O’Malley performed dismally, in part because he had too few supporters to achieve “viability” in many places under the rules of the Democratic caucus system. That left the former Maryland governor marooned on less than one percent support. He suspended his campaign almost immediately.
The Republican race was a bad one for the opinion pollsters. The greatest embarrassment was getting the winner wrong: Trump led in the RealClearPolitics average of Iowa polls by almost five points. The highly-regarded Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll took a hit, having indicated a 5-point Trump edge, while a survey from Quinnipiac University on the morning of the caucuses predicted a 7-point win. Those pollsters also significantly underestimated the support for Rubio.
Results from entrance polls at the caucuses themselves were no better, pointing to a Trump victory and a comfortable win for Clinton, neither of which materialized.