Arch conservative Ted Cruz, a Tea Party favourite, scored an upset victory over Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, while Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were locked in a virtual tie in the nation’s first presidential race.
With about 99 percent of the Republican vote in in Iowa caucuses, which traditionally kick-off the presidential race, Texas senator Cruz was ahead of real estate mogul Trump 28 percent to 24 percent, with Florida senator Marco Rubio at 23 percent.
With Trump failing to translate his formidable media presence into votes, Cruz who spent months touring the state and reaching out to evangelical voters, emerged as a formidable contender in the delegate-rich, Southern states holding primaries in the coming weeks.
As he claimed victory, Cruz fired immediate shots at both Trump and the party elites who disdain him. “Iowa has sent notice that the Republican nominee and the next President of the United States will not be chosen by the media, will not be chosen by the Washington establishment,” Cruz said.
Trump delivered a short but gracious speech, saying he loved Iowa and vowed to go on next week to win the New Hampshire primary.
“We will go on to get the Republican nomination and we will go on to easily beat Hillary or Bernie,” Trump told supporters. “We finished second, and I have to say I am just honoured.”
Rubio’s strong showing could set him up as the best placed potential establishment candidate to take on “outsider” challengers Cruz and Trump, observers said.
“This is the moment they said would never happen. For months, they told us we had no chance,” a jubilant Rubio said.
The caucuses resulted in two casualties – one on each side. Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a Republican, both dropped their candidacies after faring poorly.
On the Democratic side, Clinton is holding the narrowest of leads over insurgent candidate Bernie Sanders. She was ahead 50.1 percent to 49.4 percent with 95 percent of the votes counted.
“It’s rare that we have the opportunity we do now,” she said in a speech that didn’t explicitly claim victory. “To have a real contest of ideas. To really think hard about what the Democratic party stands for and what we want the future of our country to look like.”
She added that she was “excited” about debating Sanders and was breathing a “big sigh of relief” after the caucuses.
A loss in Iowa does not mean the end of the road for a contender though a victory gives a candidate a momentum.
For instance, all Democrats who won Iowa have gone on to secure the party’s nomination. Then Senator Barack Obama’s victory Obama unravelled Hillary Clinton’s first presidential run in 2008.
On the other hand, none of the Republican winners in Iowa got the party nomination in the last two rounds. Huckabee won Iowa in 2008, but the nomination went to John McCain who had finished fourth in Iowa.
In 2012, Mitt Romney the eventual nominee was declared the winner by only eight votes over former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who is again running this year.
But a certified tally issued a few weeks later found Santorum had won by 34 votes. But by then he had lost the momentum.