Republican Presidential

Rubio leaves Iowa with third-place finish, 'Marcomentum'

Florida senator's surge to third place propels him forward

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio gets a fist bump from one of his sons after speaking to suppo
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio gets a fist bump from one of his sons after speaking to supporters at the Rubio caucus watch party at the Downtown Marriott Hotel in Des Moines, Iowa February 1, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

DES MOINES — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz scored a hard-fought win in Monday’s caucuses, but Florida Sen. Marco Rubio leaves Iowa with the coveted brass ring of momentum with his surging third-place finish that surprised the experts and propels him forward in a grueling GOP presidential nominating process.

Rubio was projected to finish third, but his late groundswell of support has him feeling “great about the momentum that gives us coming in here to New Hampshire,” he said in the Granite State Tuesday.

So Cruz’s powerful army of 12,000 volunteers marshaling a record 51,666 supporters to the 1,682 precincts was the major story Monday night. However, Rubio’s poll-defying surge grabbed the better-than-expected prize and gives him “Marcomentum” — as his campaign calls it — heading to states where Cruz can’t rely on a similar well-organized legion of evangelical conservatives to carry his campaign.

Rubio is counting on that strong showing to bolster his argument he is the candidate mainstream Republicans should coalesce behind to thwart Cruz and second-place Iowa finisher businessman Donald Trump.

Iowa “is a lot about expectations,” David Redlawsk, a former University of Iowa political scientist now at Rutgers, said, so Rubio’s third-place finish less than a percentage point behind Trump may cast the New Hampshire race in a new light. Trump is leading the polls there, vowing a comeback, while Cruz said he will rebuild the Ronald Reagan coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats.

Rubio also could present a challenge to the GOP mainstream candidates — Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, for example — who were looking beyond Iowa to establish their campaigns.

Precinct-by-precinct results

This map shows how each candidate fared in each county across Iowa. The shade of the precinct represents the winner. The darker the shade, the larger the margin of victiory. You can zoom and drag the map.

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Rubio wasted no time in heading to New Hampshire and declaring to Republicans who will vote in next Tuesday’s primary that they cannot afford to lose the 2016 election and he offers the best hope of unifying and expanding the conservative movement to defeat either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders in November’s general election.

His Iowa chairman, Sen. Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, believes it was that argument that swayed Iowa GOP caucusgoers, especially the infamous late-deciders.

“The people who were making up their mind late, when they thought about who they could see in the Oval Office, a lot of them broke our way,” Whitver said Tuesday. Twenty-eight percent broke his way, according to entrance polling that showed Cruz getting 20 percent of late-deciders and Trump 14 percent.

Whitver also gave credit to a “very meticulously built, but seldom talked about” campaign organization.

“We worked very hard down the stretch to knock on a lot of doors and make a lot of phone calls to make sure the people we had identified came out to caucus,” he said.

According to national campaign manager Terry Sullivan, the Rubio campaign made more than 200,000 voter contacts in the last month, including 10,000 in the last four days of the campaign.

Apparently the strategy worked, because the first-term senator was polling in the low teens, but finished with 23.1 percent of the ballots cast at GOP precinct caucuses, earning him seven delegates — the same as Trump, who captured 24.3 percent of the straw votes.

Cruz finished on top with 27.6 percent and eight delegates.

Rubio’s rise added wrinkle to the GOP race that had been a dogfight since November between Cruz and Trump. with the lead seesawing back-and-forth in the polls. They ran vastly different campaigns. Cruz made the “full Grassley,” visiting all 99 Iowa counties. He carried a majority of the 46 counties with fewer than 15,000 residents.

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Trump, who won in several counties along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, made it to less than one-third of the counties, but not for lack of desire, according to a campaign aide speaking on background. The staffer said the Trump campaign was limited by the unavailability of venues large enough to accommodate the crowds he attracted.

Rubio fared well in some of the most populous counties, wining in Polk, Scott, Story, Dallas and Johnson counties. He finished second in Linn and Dubuque, and nearly tied Cruz in Black Hawk County.

Cruz relied on an army of volunteers, many of whom he housed in a former college dormitory, and what Bob Vander Plaats referred to as a “social media juggernaut.”

“They have a lot of followers that they communicate with on a regular basis through social media,” Vander Plaats said. “That’s the way people assemble today and it can be used as a real force for good.”

Cruz was able to expand the base of his support through the finals weeks of the campaign, Vander Plaats said.

Typically, to be successful, a candidate has to inspire and unite his base, Vander Plaats. In a caucus, however, a candidate has to expand the base, as 2008 caucus winner former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee did with home schoolers, marathon runners and people who shared his love of music.

It wasn’t clear to the Trump campaign how Cruz did that. It felt confident Trump had enough caucus support to win, and on Monday night thought the campaign had met its targets.

Cruz simply turned out far more people than anyone expected, said Trump state chairman Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale.

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The campaign even tried to peel away Tea Party support for Cruz by having 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin endorse Trump. It made “absolutely no difference,” he said while waiting for caucus results Monday night.

Vander Plaats, the president of the Family Leader and an endorser of Cruz, noted the strong support from like-minded Christian conservatives.

Entrance polls at caucus sites found about 62 percent of those attending caucuses said they were “born again” Christians. That’s up from 57 percent four years ago.

Cruz, Trump and Rubio split the evangelicals’ votes — 26 percent, 24 percent and 21 percent, respectively.

According to the entrance polls, 45 percent of those who showed up Monday night had never caucused before. Trump carried the first-timers, but only by seven percentage points — 30 percent to 23 percent for Cruz and 22 percent for Rubio. Among those who had caucused before, Cruz beat Trump by 13 points, suggesting “traditional” caucusgoers were less enthusiastic about Trump than newcomers. That may signal that Trump’s appeal has a ceiling among the folks who most often turn out and vote in a GOP primary.

Rubio’s ceiling may be higher, according to Grant Reeher, a political-science professor at Syracuse University.

“The fact that he finished on the same lap with the two front-runners bodes very well for him,” Reeher said. “He could emerge as the more mainstream Republican whom the disaffected within the party can learn to live with and get behind.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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