On Monday, the political world watched as the early results trickled in from the Iowa caucuses. First, Donald Trump was ahead, then Ted Cruz overtook him, then Marco Rubio started creeping up. In the final count, Cruz won convincingly with 28 percent, Trump came in second with 24 percent, and Rubio took home bronze with 23 percent.
Commentators are scrambling now to read the tea leaves of these results. A lot of the alleged meaning depends on the hopes and expectations people had before. The last (and typically best) Iowa poll, released just two days before the caucuses, had Trump at 28 percent, Cruz at 23 percent, and Rubio at 15 percent.
Trump, it was thought, had run a lazy campaign and had very little grassroots mobilization, so maybe he would get crushed by better organized rivals. And though he did lose to Cruz, and barely beat Rubio, it's hardly the death blow some hoped. It turns out that at least a quarter of the highly motivated GOP base in Iowa really do like Trump, in spite of his lackadaisical operation, and the polls that show him in the lead aren't skewed or exaggerated.
Cruz's triumph, driven by evangelical voters, might seem to bode well for his nomination prospects. Rubio did better than expected, so maybe that means something. Carson, Jeb, and Rand garnered very modest support; the rest of the pack did so poorly they didn't received any delegates at all, and some are already dropping out.
This week, pollsters will be furiously dialing potential voters. Pundits will be scribbling and shouting, all angling for some unique or authoritative or contrarian perspective on these results.
But there's one source of information that's a better predictor of where the wind is blowing than polls, statistical models, or expert forecasts: the market. Specifically, betting markets, where people are forced to put their money where their mouth is.
With hard cash on the line, the incentive to be right is powerful — and, it turns out, pretty effective.
Here's what the betting odds looked like for most of this endless campaign season. Early on, there's a lot of uncertainty, but the odds of Trump actually winning the nomination were always consistently low, despite his huge leads in the polls. Bettors didn't believe voters would really go for him, or that the party insiders would allow him to succeed.
But in the last month, something changed. Maybe it was because the party insiders didn't seem to be doing anything to stop Trump. Maybe it was because the mainstream never coalesced around a "establishment" candidate. Maybe it was because Trump's long-predicted crash in the polls never materialized.
Either way, Trump's odds started steadily improving in January, and Christie, Cruz, and Rubio started slipping. On January 13, at 7:01 AM, Trump took the lead for the first time, and after that, his odds soared. On the day of the Iowa caucuses, bettors put his probability of winning the Republican nomination at over 50 percent.
But as the results started trickling in, and it became clear that Cruz would beat Trump, the markets reacted.
In just 90 minutes, Trump's odds of winning the nomination cratered — falling from over 50 percent to about 25 percent — and Marco Rubio's soared, from about 30 percent to over 55 percent. As for Cruz's big win, it barely brought him back to where he stood two weeks ago.
According the markets, Rubio won in Iowa, and Trump lost.
If you're concerned about the rise of Trump's fascist, populist demagoguery — its virulent and xenophobic identity politics, economic nationalism, and lawless authoritarianism — this might seem to be good news, of a sort.
But the bad news is that Trump's loss is probably due in large part to his rival's embrace of Trumpism. At the Atlantic, Peter Beinart notes that Rubio "surged by borrowing Trump’s message while pledging to more effectively package it."
In the final weeks before Iowa, Rubio grew markedly more anti-immigration. Having previously warned against using terrorism as a pretext to restrict legal immigration, the Florida senator in mid-January declared that because of the rise of ISIS, “the entire system of legal immigration must now be reexamined for security first and foremost.”
Rubio echoed Trump when it came to the rights of Muslims, too. Asked in a January debate about Trump’s call for banning Muslim immigration, Rubio praised the billionaire for having “tapped in to some of that anger that’s out there about this whole issue because this president has consistently underestimated the threat of ISIS.” ... The listener who didn’t already know Rubio’s position might well have thought he supports Trump’s plan.
When asked about Trump’s call for closing mosques, Rubio did Trump one better, declaring that, “It’s not about closing down mosques. It’s about closing down any place — whether it’s a cafe, a diner, an Internet site — any place where radicals are being inspired.”
... Having once pitched himself as a bridge between the GOP and the changing face of twenty-first century America, Rubio instead began appealing to “all of us who feel out of place in our own country.”
Here is the moderate, establishment candidate calling the whole system of legal immigration into question, attacking foreign trade, fear-mongering about religious minorities, calling to shut down and censor the Internet, and blowing tribalist dog whistles.
Of course, Rubio isn't Trump: he's a politician. If he captures the nomination, he'll try to pivot from identity politics and emphasize his "moderate" credentials. He's still an establishment figure, with the credibility of being sophisticated, eloquent, and (above all) "electable" — everything Trump isn't.
But this is the larger problem. Trump has convinced the establishment that they need to embrace his priorities and methods in order to maintain control. Worse, he might be right. This may be the most troubling development in the whole Trump saga, and not just because the establishment won't flatly repudiate a man conjuring up religious tests, concentration camps, and mass deportation.
By rallying long-suppressed nationalist factions, Trump has shifted the margins of acceptable debate more than any other political figure in recent memory. "Trump has redefined what “moderate” means," Beinart argues.
In 2008 and 2012, Mitt Romney and John McCain never had to praise a rival for suggesting a religious litmus test for entering the country. During their presidential bids, Romney and McCain both shifted right on illegal immigration. But they didn’t backpedal on their support for legal immigration.
Trump probably couldn't win the general election, and if he did, he couldn't institute his agenda effectively without the network of interest groups that make policy happen. That's what makes him so dangerous: he's unconstrained by the traditional network of interests, compromises, and pressures of the status quo — nobody has any idea what he might try to do.
But that's also what makes his candidacy a long shot. The more established candidates might very well win and effectively implement their agenda — pushing the bounds of executive power that Bush and Obama softened into playdough — without triggering an open constitutional or political crisis. Their embrace of Trump's agenda is a troubling sign both of how the political landscape has shifted and what might now come from even a "moderate" presidency.
The ballots say Cruz won. The markets say it was Rubio. But, in time, we may find that it was Trump after all.