Since When Does 3rd Equal 1st? Deconstructing Marco Rubio’s Iowa ‘Win’

The pundit class found a victory for the GOP presidential hopeful somewhere in his third-place finish in the Iowa caucus Monday night.

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio addresses supporters at a caucus-night party in Des Moines, Iowa, Feb. 1, 2016.
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio addresses supporters at a caucus-night party in Des Moines, Iowa, Feb. 1, 2016. Pete Marovich/Getty Images

If you listen very, very quietly, you can almost hear it buzzing just below the surface of the post-Iowa caucus coverage. It’s not quite the howling of a newborn calf or the chirping of a baby bird cracking out of its eggshell, but the sound of a new political narrative being born has a distinct wail all its own.

When children ask me, “Where do narratives come from?” I’m always a little nervous about giving them all the graphic, gory details. Eventually I’ll sit them down on my knee, look them in the eye and tell them the dirty truth: Narratives happen when one political analyst really, really cares about a certain idea and squeezes as many disparate facts into that idea as possible until eventually a little baby narrative pops out. And if that narrative is nourished by enough talking heads and reporters, one day it may grow into conventional wisdom, which might as well be fact.

It’s important to take you through these political facts of life because a whole lot of narratives are going to come out of Monday night’s Republican caucus results, most of which should never have been born. The loudest one right now is that somehow, some way, Marco Rubio “won” the Iowa caucus.  

The final Iowa caucus results were Ted Cruz, 28 percent; Donald Trump, 24 percent; and Marco Rubio, 23 percent. That’s a third-place finish for the junior senator from Florida. But if you attended his watch party Monday night, you’d have thought he was about to accept the GOP nomination, a Grammy and an Oscar. Rubio claimed that a third-place finish somehow proved the “doubters” wrong. He then went into a classic Rubio stump speech.

It is true that Rubio performed better than expected in the polls, and the delegate count is close, but by the news coverage, you’d think he had just lapped the competition and was assured victory.

Before you could flip the channel or get online, the baby narrative was born that Rubio had “momentum” and his “victory” would force establishment candidates like John Kasich, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie to bow out, propelling Rubio to a win.

That’s a very cute narrative, and this time of year, everybody is excited to create a new narrative and bring it to work to show off to the other analysts, journalists and talking heads. However, there are three basic facts about this campaign, even post-Iowa, that are essentially narratus interruptus for political pundits and armchair analysts alike.

1. The establishment isn’t going anywhere.

With three races to go until Super Tuesday (New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada), establishment types like Bush, Kasich and Christie have all set their eyes on states they think will change their fortunes. It’s unlikely that any of them will drop out of the race until Super Tuesday, which only gives Cruz and Trump time to build upon their successes in Iowa, denying Rubio the supposed “coalescing” that will make him the anti-Trump/Cruz.

2. Donald Trump wasn’t even trying.