Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) finished third in the Iowa Republican caucuses on Monday. His campaign and much of the media will tell you that this means he was the real winner of the first-in-the-nation contest. Don't believe them.
The news runs on surprise. People click on stories that surprise them. Things that are expected to happen -- like Trump and Cruz fighting it out for first place in Iowa -- are less surprising. Politicians know this and take advantage of it. Politicos call this the "expectations game" -- setting expectations of your performance at a certain level so that you can do "better than expected" and be the focus of the headlines.
The spin is already happening. "This is the moment they told us would never happen," Rubio said Monday night. "They told me we had no chance." His campaign manager, Alex Conant, struck a similar tune. "This is a big night for us," Conant said. "It's probably a three-person race leaving here. If you don't want Trump or Cruz to be the nominee, you better get on board with Marco Rubio."
Reporters know they're being spun, but they go with it anyway. "It'll annoy Rubio detractors that his expectations management game worked, he overperformed, and it’ll have an impact in his coverage," Commentary's Noah Rothman tweeted Friday. Experts expect the press to be played like a fiddle. "We can call this right now: Marco Rubio will be the flavor of the week," election law expert Rick Hasen tweeted Monday.
The press doesn't have to -- and shouldn't -- take the bait. Here's a great guide to how you should really think about the results:
The real story here is that more than half of Republican primary voters in Iowa opted for Trump -- a blowhard billionaire who has embraced open racism and is tearing the GOP apart -- and Cruz, the most loathed man in Washington. Nearly 10 percent of them voted for Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon who has never held federal political office.
The pro-Rubio narrative will be that, as the "establishment" candidate who did best in Iowa, he is well-positioned to gather the full strength of the Republican establishment behind him. But Monday night's results showed just how weak that establishment is: With 99 percent of the results in, Cruz, Trump and Carson, the candidates most often described as anti-establishment, took a combined 61 percent of the vote. Everyone else combined for 39 percent.
The results also showed the weakness of "establishment" as a label. While it does describe candidates' closeness to party elites, it doesn't tell voters much about their policy positions. Trump says racist things. But like Trump, Rubio holds several positions that are well outside the mainstream of American political opinion. He believes, for example, that women who are raped and become pregnant should have to carry the pregnancy to term. Only a quarter of Americans agree with him. There's more:
Rubio could very well be the Republican nominee. He will likely be able to sign up more major donors and score a few endorsements by citing his Iowa results. And he'll have at least one fewer opponent to worry about: Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, suspended his campaign Monday night. But Rubio's performance in Iowa doesn't mean he won anything. It just means he still has a chance.
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