The tensions that finally experienced some release last night have been building for many months. The first Republican candidate to declare his intention to run for the presidency did so in December of 2014. In the interim, campaigns have risen and fallen and candidates have come and gone. Those Americans who consider themselves Republican voters have been pitted against one another, defending the validity of their ideas, litigating their grievances, and defining their very self-conception. Last night, finally, the first of many votes were cast. Today, conservatives awake to hope. The headiness of first contact is behind them. Amid the most potent test to its vitality and legitimacy in a generation, conservatism emerged victorious. There are, however, many more tests to follow.
Skepticism in the power of the Iowa Republican caucuses to shape the outcome of the long primary race is justified. The Hawkeye State represents, at best, the earliest stages of a protracted process of clarification. Conservatives have, however, won a victory in their first engagement with the well-positioned forces aligned with the status quo. They are owed a moment to survey the field of battle and to revel in their accomplishments.
Donald Trump — the celebrity candidate, a creation of the popular media — lost. The conventional wisdom, which holds that a massive surplus of earned media coverage from both conservative and traditional outlets cannot substitute for a ground game or a retail strategy, won the day. The notion that a substantial turnout of new, first-time caucus participants would benefit Trump proved erroneous. Tens of thousands of Iowans turned out last night, shattering the previous record turnout, but they joined their neighbors at their caucus site not to vote for Trump but against him. It was a demonstration that constituent loyalty is easily lost. You cannot simply skip out on the final opportunity to make your case to voters because you believe your victory to be assured and expect them to reward you.
The GOP caucus results represent a victory for conscientiousness over entrenched, institutional interests. Trump’s second place finish (just one point away from a third place finish) was not a victory for the so-called establishment. Contrary to the popular convention peddled on talk radio outlets, Trump is the candidate of the status quo. His departures from preferred Beltway norms are entirely tonal and not substantive. The corrosive crony capitalism against which Sarah Palin once preached but which she now embraces in the form of taxpayer-funded ethanol mandates and subsidies did not win last night. Champions for that unsustainable giveaway to the first-in-the-nation caucus state – like, for example, the longest serving governor in the history of the Republic, Terry Branstad – lost. Just ask his son, Eric Branstad, an ethanol lobbyist who delivered a pro-Trump speech to a Des Moines caucus site. Indeed, the results were so resoundingly favorable toward insurgent reformers that candidates like Mike Huckabee, a figure who has long advocated against the reformation of the nation’s perilous entitlement state, dropped out on the spot. Trump-leaning conservatives who have been deceived into believing that Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio represent the best interests of the Beltway set should rest easier knowing that the nation’s Bob Doles, Orrin Hatches, and Trent Lotts, who were signaling that they had made their peace with Trump, are more nervous than they were yesterday.
Conservatives also won an opportunity to prosecute the long campaign that briefly looked as though it would be over before it had even begun. Cruz’s victory in Iowa and his well-funded campaign apparatus will sustain the Texas senator for a long fight. Rubio’s equally well-heeled operation is also in the race for the long haul. Last night, the party’s major donors – many of whom had quietly begun to shift their support from Jeb Bush to his insubordinate protégé – now have concrete evidence that the junior senator from Florida is a viable candidate. They do not have to accept either Cruz or Trump as inevitable. While it remains unlikely that any of the other GOP candidates vying to represent the party’s moderate lane will drop out of the race before New Hampshire casts its votes, it has become more probable that Rubio will emerge as the singular moderate alternative to Trump.
Conservatives have a lot to celebrate today, but that renewed faith in the foresight and prudence of their fellow Americans is about to be tested like never before. Over 45,000 heartland voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump. That’s nothing to sneeze at. As of today, the celebrity candidate remains the prohibitive favorite to win the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries. He continues to lead his opponents in the polls by over 20 points in the Granite State. Surveying a primary race is hard, and polling is an imprecise science, but the data isn’t off by that much. The alternatives to Trump are hopelessly fractured, and they will fight a bitter race against one another well before they focus their fire on the real estate mogul at the top of the polls. Conservatives have demonstrated that they will not roll over and accept their fates without a fight, but that does not mean that their movement has escaped the chopping block just yet.
There are those on the right who are so infatuated with victimhood and consumed with fatalism that they would tear down the pillars that hold aloft the longest-lived representative republic on earth. They have been misled into believing that one of the system’s most visible stakeholders is the man for that job. The nation is fortunate that the inherent, unsustainable contradictions of the Trump campaign collapsed in on themselves last night. Conservative voters should, however, steel themselves for a long civil war, in which the forces arrayed against it are organized, united, well funded, and energized. Marco Rubio’s closing argument, that he is best positioned to unite the party after this fractious internecine contest is concluded, is a powerful one. But magnanimity fails to compel when there is plenty of fighting left to do, and all sides of the conflict believe they can yet win.
So let conservatives have their moment – they’ve earned it. Their rest should be brief. There is plenty of fighting left to do.