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What We Learned From the Iowa Caucuses

Rubio plays with his children Monday after addressing supporters at a caucus night party in Des Moines. (Pete Marovich/Getty Images)

The first contest in the 2016 presidential election ended with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz winning the angry vote over Donald Trump while Sen. Marco Rubio’s strong showing made him the party’s establishment favorite. The two Democrats battled to a “virtual tie,” as Sen. Bernard Sanders put it.

The race on the GOP side had been predicted to be a tight one between Cruz and Trump but Rubio’s close third-place finish was the surprise of the night. Sanders’ performance against Hillary Clinton, finishing just a few tenths of a point behind the former secretary of state, will make that fight for the nomination a longer one.

Rubio’s big night: He didn’t win the caucuses. But the Florida lawmaker’s surprisingly strong finish exceeded expectations — he was a distant third in many recent polls — and helped him take a giant leap forward in his quest to become the undisputed choice of the Republican establishment.

Iowa Results “Big night for Rubio,” said Scott Reed, a veteran Republican strategist who ran Bob Dole’s presidential campaign in 1996. “He survived $30 million of negative ads and late-deciders broke his way.”

Now, Rubio heads to New Hampshire, where the pressure on him to finish in at least second place will grow exponentially. He’ll face stiffer competition: Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Jeb Bush have each focused on Granite State voters, and polls show them all running about neck-and-neck with the senator there. If any of the trio finishes above Rubio in New Hampshire, they could claim to be the strongest candidate to take on either Trump or Cruz the rest of the way.

“Rubio needs a No. 2 finish in New Hampshire.” Reed said.

Damage to the brand: “There is now blood in the water for Donald Trump. He under performed because of his attempt to sell Iowa voters wholesale with large media events with big crowds without really getting to know them on more of a personal level.

“Ted Cruz proved he could successfully beat back Trump attacks because he had a great ground game and identified well with evangelical voters. The fact that Trump skipped the Iowa debate gave Marco Rubio an outstanding chance to break through to voters with a positive message and bring more voters to his camp. Trump must now hope that he can still maintain his lead in New Hampshire and hope that his brand of being a winner doesn’t whither away.”

— Ron Bonjean, GOP consultant and veteran Capitol Hill communicator

Short on principles: “Two weeks ago, the conventional wisdom was that Trump voters could not be dissuaded from supporting him. But after just 10 days of shining a bright light on Trump’s inconsistencies as well as his recent support for liberal proposals on higher taxes and government-run health care, we’ve seen that many voters don’t like what they see.

I’m proud of the Republican voters of Iowa for rejecting a candidate who falls short on so many of the principles that Republicans hold dear.”

— Katie Packer, deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney in 2012, whose Our Principles PAC ran ads against Trump in Iowa

A long fight ahead: “It would be a mistake to draw too many conclusions from Iowa given who they chose in 2008 and 2012 and so the race really isn’t changed from where it was 48 hours ago. This is essentially a three-person race between Trump, Cruz and someone who can actually win in November and I expect it will take at least a few more weeks to sort that third lane out. If anything, Iowa reinforced that both parties have a long nomination fight ahead.”

— Brian Walsh, Republican strategist and former spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee

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