Iowa's Real Winners Are Sanders and Rubio -- but Don't Count Trump Out Just Yet

Historically, the few days between the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary are notoriously misleading because of what Nobel-winning economist Daniel Kahneman calls the focusing effect, defined by Wikipedia as "a cognitive bias that occurs when people place too much importance on one aspect of an event, causing an error in accurately predicting the utility of a future outcome." At this stage in the U.S. election season, we tend to think Iowa is the be-all and end-all of everything, until New Hampshire rolls around and changes everything.

This is especially true when it comes to the Republicans. By winning Iowa, Ted Cruz has now joined the ranks of previous (non-)titans like Rick Santorum (Iowa winner, 2012) and Mike Huckabee (Iowa winner, 2008). Remember them? As you may have picked up from that, an Iowa win doesn't really mean much for the GOP. Iowa's Republicans are disproportionately evangelical-heavy, favoring the most religiously conservative candidate. So, in a sense, it actually would've been more shocking if Cruz had lost Iowa.

But that in no way means Iowa is completely inconsequential. To catch a glimpse of this crystal ball, you really have to look deep behind the numbers. Here are three major insights from Iowa 2016:

1. Much Ado About Rubio. Rubio is now a serious contender -- you've all heard this by now. His strong third (almost second) place showing is much more significant than Cruz's win. So yes, watch the entire Republican establishment rush to get behind Rubio in the coming days. But will it help? Probably not enough. As significant as the rise of Rubio is, this is still the year of the anti-establishment candidates. Together, Cruz, Trump and Carson got over 60 percent of the Iowa vote and polled very well leading in. This number itself is much more important than Trump's loss. Despite Trump's second-place showing, his brand -- described early on by Morning Joe's Willie Geist as "a giant middle finger to the political process" -- won resoundingly. Considering that Cruz is unlikely to have any pull beyond Iowa (and maybe South Carolina), this still bodes very well for Trump. Don't count him out just yet.

2. Bernie Can Really Win. He wildly exceeded expectations while Hillary, despite winning by her razor-thin margin, fell short of hers. At this point, the expectations game is everything (this is what made Trump a loser in second place and Rubio a winner in third place). Effectively, that makes Bernie the real winner in Iowa. Bernie is trouncing Hillary 63-30 in New Hampshire according to the latest UMass Lowell/7News poll, so Hillary now has an enormous challenge ahead of her. She's still the best bet to get the nomination in the end, but it's far from the certainty that it once was.

3. Anyone-But-Trump Liberals Should Proceed With Care. As brash and infuriating as Trump may seem, his proposals, believe it or not, are much more moderate than Cruz, or even Rubio. Unlike Trump, who has held several liberal positions in the past (he was pro-choice, pro-single payer healthcare, and even praised Hillary Clinton as little as four years ago), Cruz is a Tea Party extremist and likely to stay that way. On abortion, both Cruz and Rubio oppose exceptions for rape or incest, unlike Trump. Unless you're okay with either of these guys appointing the next couple of Supreme Court justices, it may be a little misplaced to celebrate Trump's loss in Iowa just yet.

That said, Democrats should probably hope for Cruz to win the nomination, because that pretty much guarantees a President Hillary Clinton (or, less likely, Sanders). Cruz is too far-right to be able to beat Hillary. But either Trump or Rubio could conceivably beat her: Trump has a talent for getting to know his audience and giving them exactly what they want, so he's more likely to pivot to the center in the general election; and Rubio is now the establishment favorite who will have obscene amounts of money supporting his bid. In the liberal nightmare scenario where one of them does beat Hillary Clinton, Trump is definitely the lesser evil.

As of today, Trump is 22 points ahead of Cruz in New Hampshire, according to the RealClearPolitics average. (While it's true that the polls didn't really deliver in Iowa, not all of them were too far off: the most recent polls from Opinion Savvy and Emerson did show Trump, Cruz, and Rubio in a statistical dead heat.) When it comes to political terrain, New Hampshire and Iowa may as well be different planets. So it's hard to imagine a lead that large evaporating entirely within a week. But this is 2016, and stranger things have happened.

Both sides now have a two-person race, each with an establishment candidate and an outsider. On the left, it's Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders. On the right, it's Marco Rubio vs. Donald Trump. Cruz's win, while it did shake things up, is a distraction. He can reliably placed in the previous-Iowa-winners bin with Santorum and Huckabee.