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

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.

Trump spent little on organizing in Iowa, skipped the last crucial debate, and still came in second place with 24 percent of the vote. He maintains a huge lead nationally, and if anyone eats into that lead, it’ll be Cruz, not Rubio. Furthermore, Trump’s leads in New Hampshire and South Carolina are in the double digits, and “get out the vote” is less crucial in a primary than in a caucus. This looks more like a Cruz-vs.-Trump race than a three-man contest.  


3. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are the same guy.

Cruz and Trump supporters are essentially a large voting bloc that accounts for over 50 percent of Republican primary voters. Over 25 percent of Trump voters said that they would choose Cruz as their second-choice candidate if Trump got out of the race (13 percent said they’d choose Ben Carson). Among Cruz voters, Trump is their top choice if Cruz gets out of the race. Throw in the fact that Carson supporters would jump to Cruz or Trump if the good doctor were to drop out (likely after South Carolina), and that is a steep hill for Rubio to climb in the next few weeks. Rubio can’t sit back and hope that Trump and Cruz “destroy” each other, since those voters will likely switch between candidates but not fall into Rubio’s lap.


I am all in favor of letting new ideas grow and flourish, but when it comes to politics, we will suffer from a Malthusian crisis of public discourse if we keep letting these baby narratives get conceived and wander all over our television and news landscape with no rhyme or reason.

Ted Cruz won last night. He’s got the best chance to be the Republican nominee for now. The next-best bet is the guy in second place, Donald Trump. Marco Rubio isn’t legitimately in the conversation yet when it comes to winning the GOP nomination, and neither history nor numbers nor statistics are in his favor as the third-place finisher in Iowa.


As much as pundits want to flirt with the idea of a Rubio insurgency that’s sitting across the bar, maybe they should wait awhile before trying to get their facts on and creating a narrative that no one is going to be able to take care of.

Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.

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