While Donald Trump tried to spin his loss at the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas into a win, there was a visibly lower energy in the room as he steered away from his usual bombastic rhetoric.
Despite leading most polls in the state for months, including maintaining a slight edge over Cruz in the most recent ones, Trump came in second place with 24 percent support compared to Cruz's 28 percent, the New York Times notes. Even more troubling for Trump is the fact that Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida almost tied him with 23 percent.
The results of the Iowa caucuses probably do not herald the end of Trump so much as they herald a long and bitter fight between the establishment and anti-establishment wings of the Republican Party.
In Trump's defense, while second place with 24 percent support would seem to be underperforming given his confident boasts about winning and his dominance in the polls, it is nothing to laugh at for the man's first caucus. Many pundits were predicting his supporters would be no-shows, which was clearly a wrong impression.
His candidacy undoubtedly motivated many of the first-time voters who brought record turnout to the Republican caucuses, and he has a more comfortable lead in New Hampshire over the other candidates than he had in Iowa. Next week's big story may be about Trump's return as a victor in that state.
There's also reason to believe Cruz will not be able to maintain momentum after the Iowa caucuses. Cruz's victory depended almost solely on the strength of Iowa's self-described "very conservative" voters, and Iowans identifying as "very conservative" represented a larger portion of their state's electorate than anywhere else in 2012.
But Trump's loss is nonetheless a big deal and has temporarily taken the wind out the sails of a presidential campaign which appeared to be rising ever higher above its opponents. First of all, while many first-time voters supported Trump, he did not fare well with undecided voters, especially those who made their decision over the last week. This isn't too surprising, considering Trump's decision to skip out on the last Republican debate on Jan. 28.
The second reason Trump should fear the results of the caucuses is the ascendancy of Rubio. He was closer in support to Rubio than he was to Cruz, which shows an opening for the establishment wing of the Republican Party. Supporters of candidates like former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio may now be more likely to throw their support behind Rubio in New Hampshire. If the Florida Senator over-performs there, which now seems like a distinct possibility, it may come down to a two-way race between Rubio and either Trump or Cruz.
But what is certain is that the "winner" image which Trump has been promoting for seven months has been tarnished. Perhaps it will mean little and he will win New Hampshire, which would give new life to his campaign and presumably induce him to start up the "winner" talk again. But if Rubio and Cruz keep eating into his support, the hollowness of that message will become all the more clear for people to see.