As a long time campaign staffer, I can tell you that when I say, “The only poll that matters is the one on Election Day,” I mean it. Given the number of times Donald Trump has used his high poll numbers to justify just about everything he does, his loss to Senator Ted Cruz may make him a believer in that philosophy.
Since Trump joined the race, he has not only seemed to buck all conventional wisdom, but anyone paying attention to Iowa over the past month might have thought he didn’t just buck that “wisdom” — it looked like he was creating his own. No matter what he said, no matter how preposterous, it just seemed to make him stronger. His policies have been all over the map from racist to implausible to both.
Trump’s “facts” are ideas that are born in his head and leap out of his mouth like angry wasps. Why should we ban Muslims from coming to the country, “until we have figured out what is going on,”??? Well, according to him, thousands of Muslims rallied in support of al Qaeda on 9/11. It never happened, but…who cares? Bill Clinton famously said, “When people feel uncertain, they’d rather have somebody that’s strong and wrong than somebody who’s weak and right.” Trump’s campaign probably has that on a poster in its HQ.
That Trump’s misstatements and inaccuracies have gone unpunished is no surprise. Candidates frequently make up their own facts or stories to back up their idea, but he has taken this farther than most. When Chuck Todd questioned his numbers on crime, Trump pushed back by saying, “I have millions of Twitter followers.” Yeah, so does Kim Karashian but that doesn’t mean anything.
Where the Trump campaign seemed to miss the boat was that all of the pomp and circumstance of his campaign doesn’t change the way Iowans make their political decisions. There’s a reason Cruz worked so hard to do a “full Grassley” (visit all 99 Iowa counties). John Kerry famously said that when he met Iowans and asked if he could count on their support, he was told, “I’ve only met you a few times, I don’t know yet.” Iowa may be flyover country for most travelers but if that’s how you approach campaigning there, you shouldn’t bother.
Donald Trump has repeatedly said that he is going to win this on his terms. That has meant a lot of time on television, where he gets more free air time than anyone, big rallies and speeches, and Twitter wars with everyone, but not a lot of retail politics. Up until now, it looked like that strategy could work. Iowa showed, it may not. For the past few weeks, the new conventional wisdom has been that a large turnout would benefit the Donald because he was the one drawing in new people. People who have never caucused before were coming out for him. He was right in a way, more people did turn out, but they were Evangelicals and they came out for Cruz.
So for all of Trump’s bluster, big rallies and outside support, he failed in Iowa because the very basics of political campaigning remain beyond him. While Cruz will deny being the establishment, he is a sitting senator who has been nose deep in high level GOP politics for the better part of the last 40 years. If the RNC is the Empire, so is Cruz and this week it finally struck back.