Albert Einstein was once asked why physicists were able to devise nuclear weapons but politicians were hard-pressed to control them. “Because politics is more difficult than physics,” Einstein replied.
He was onto something, judging from the opening battles of the Republican presidential fray. Consider this conundrum: billionaire promoter Donald Trump captures thousands more votes than any previous Republican candidate in the history of the Iowa caucuses. Yuge, right? Not so. Trump’s big number equals political failure, in the calculations of many analysts, because Texas Senator Ted Cruz–he of the apparently fading poll numbers–confounded forecasters by racking up even more. Meanwhile Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s third-place finish was, according to that slippery variable known as the Expectations Game, the biggest win of the night.
As Lewis Carroll, a mathematician himself, might put it, “Curiouser and curiouser.” Neurosurgeon Ben Carson won 9% of the vote for fourth place, as rumors buzzed that the doctor might soon fold up his tent. (Cruz apologized for his campaign’s part in spreading the tale, which Carson angrily denied.) Ohio Governor John Kasich failed to break 2%, even as analysts continued to discuss seriously his prospects for success. Does this add up? No more than the Jeb Bush money equation. The lagging Establishment scion’s super PAC spent about $2,845 on ads alone for each of the 5,238 votes he won while finishing in sixth place.
There is a bigness to the politics this year that has jumbled everyone’s math. Voters, by large margins, tell pollsters that they don’t like the way things are going in America and the world. But instead of turning off, they are engaging at levels unseen in recent memory. An astounding 24 million viewers tuned in to the first debate on a lazy Thursday evening in August. That’s nearly a World Series final plus a blockbuster Downton Abbey. Some 180,000 Iowa Republicans turned out to vote in their first-in-the-nation caucuses–half again more than the previous record. Legions of small donors are fueling campaigns on both the right and the left, and thousands of people turn out for massive events in modest-sized towns.
Bigness is not the Republican way. The traditional GOP nominating process was tweedy and predictable. Each field had a front runner, typically drawn from the ranks of past runners-up. A Reagan follows a Ford. A Bush follows a Reagan. A Dole follows a Bush. The drama opens with the heir presumptive piling up cash and endorsements that fend off an inevitable challenge in Act II from the populist right wing. The ensuing competition builds character. But the challenger never really has a chance to win, because just as he emerges from the evangelical embrace of Iowa, he runs out of money, and the crown settles on the chosen brow.
For nearly half a century, this order has seemed as predictable as an episode of Law & Order. Now it is being blown up in an explosion of democracy. And many of the hypotheses that have accounted for political gravity and thrust are suddenly up for grabs. In a world where the Iowa GOP caucus winner is on record opposing ethanol subsidies, the laws of political physics have been repealed.
The leading edge of a major blizzard scattered the candidates from Iowa even as the last votes were being tallied. Flying high aboard a chartered jet was the resurrected Cruz, delighting in the fact that his political obituary was so widely written in the days leading up to the voting. This election, he assured his followers, “is gonna be decided by the grassroots,” not “the Washington cartel” or “the media.” Cruz is the polished product of Princeton University and Harvard Law; he attacks the elite with a ruthlessness steeped in familiarity.
How did he become the first candidate to survive Trump’s barrage of increasingly pointed attacks? The two share some common ground: both are solo artists in a team sport. They’re provocateurs who treat party bosses like punching bags and distill frustration with the status quo into 101-proof political white lightning. But Cruz’s campaign is ultimately aimed at the head, not the gut. It’s rooted in the promise that he alone is a pure conservative, with a proven record of standing on principle. Trump’s is predicated on the idea that he’s a winner who can’t be bought, a hard-nosed negotiator who will reverse the nation’s sliding fortunes.
Their tactics match their personalities. Cruz has built a traditional campaign, with an expansive grassroots organization and precise, data-driven targeting. Trump’s is trying something entirely new, a social-media concoction of fame, shock and a knack for feeding Twitter. One is a former Supreme Court lawyer; the other a former reality-TV star. Cruz’s stump speech is scripted down to the pauses for emphasis; Trump blends self-praise with exaggerated insults in a torrential stream of consciousness. If Trump fans love his pugilistic spirit, Cruz supporters are drawn to his absolutist philosophy. His closing argument lays out the ideological contrasts. “A vote for Marco Rubio is a vote for amnesty,” he says. “And a vote for Donald Trump is a vote for Obamacare.” It follows that he would never vote for either.
And while Trump’s ground game was a black box–perhaps an empty box at that–Cruz built the most sophisticated field operation in the state. He had more than 1,500 precinct captains, a long roster of influential pastors’ endorsements and some 12,000 volunteers on the ground, from as far away as Montana and Ireland. Where other candidates might put three events on their agendas, Cruz prided himself on packing in five or six. At each appearance, he collected names and contact info for every voter in the room. He completed a “full Grassley”–the grueling tour named for veteran Senator Chuck Grassley in which the supplicant visited all 99 Iowa counties–and wherever his pilgrimage took him, he courted the powerful and well-organized evangelical bloc that makes the Hawkeye State ripe for conservative aspirants. He pitched his cause in a seamless patter worthy of Professor Harold Hill in River City, asking unabashedly for every voter to bring along not one but nine more.
The obit writers, on the other hand, were watching polls, and most of these surveys failed to capture the fruits of Cruz’s labor. His volunteers reportedly placed 27,000 phone calls to potential voters on a single day of the final weekend. Cruz obliterated the existing record for votes in Iowa’s GOP caucus and thereby rattled conventional assumptions about a ceiling on the Texan’s hopes in New Hampshire.
No nonincumbent Republican has ever won both Iowa and New Hampshire in the same primary season. One state favors the pious and earnest candidate; the other has a soft spot for boundary breakers with a dash of pizzazz. But Cruz alighted in the Granite State aware that New Hampshire is home to plenty of fierce conservatives. Patrick Buchanan, with half the political skills of Cruz, thrived there in the 1990s on a platform of red meat and rifles. “We’ve had a very methodical, slow-building crescendo,” said Jeff Roe, Cruz’s campaign manager. After New Hampshire, Cruz would be rolling toward the South Carolina primary on Feb. 20, with further fields of conservative fervor ready to be harvested March 1 in the so-called SEC primary dominated by Deep South states.
What makes this scenario plausible is Cruz’s ideological purity–to get to his right, you’d have to seize a federal wildlife refuge–backed up by his broad base of donors, who range from megacheck millionaires to small-money crowdfunders. Cruz boasted roughly $19 million on hand at the end of January. And he knows how to stretch each dollar. When the air conditioners in his Houston headquarters shut each evening at 6 p.m., the stingy candidate makes do with fans.
Trump reached New Hampshire later in the day, after a pause in New York to recalibrate at home. He was annoyed at losing the Expectations Game. “We got the biggest vote in the history of a primary in Iowa, by, like, 60,000 people extra. I’m not going to say that was me, but it was me.” But with his braggadocio and his passion for polls, Trump had brought it on himself. Quoting Trump’s own boasts with sly malice, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie turned the knife, saying, “The guy who does nothing but win lost last night.”
For all the same reasons that Cruz did well, Trump should have seen it coming. He invested neither the time nor the money to build a grassroots operation. People thronged to his rallies, but he let them melt away by the thousands, with little direct follow-up. His outreach to the evangelicals was perfunctory. Trump stumbled when asked his favorite Bible verse and whether he sought God’s forgiveness. He reportedly confused the communion and collection plates during a visit to church.
As for the polls that showed him opening a lead on a fading Cruz, the numbers failed to catch the self-inflicted damage Trump wrought by boycotting the last pre-Iowa debate and staging a rally for veterans instead. Pollsters, whose surveys continued through the final weekend, saw a drop in Trump’s support after the debate gamble.
Still, Trump had a point. The fact that a novice candidate with a half-baked platform and a hair-trigger mouth could draw more than 45,000 votes (the previous record was Mike Huckabee’s, at nearly 41,000) was a political sensation. Before the caucuses, the question was: Would his fans come out to vote? The answer was emphatically yes.
As he dropped into New Hampshire aboard his Trump jet, the disruptive billionaire prepared to vindicate his digital-age candidacy. He briefly adopted a modest tone with interviewers: “I’m very happy with a second-place finish in Iowa,” he told one. Then he reverted to form by lashing out at Cruz. By stoking the rumors of Carson’s surrender, Trump charged, the Texan “stole” first place–“illegally,” he added, before erasing that extra dash of insult. The stakes for New Hampshire were higher than before: with a lead of 21 points in the RealClearPolitics average of Granite State polls, there was no room to doubt his position as top dog, but Iowa had put his ability to close the deal in question. “Trump’s candidacy is based on the notion that he himself is a winner who is strong and knows how to defeat his enemies,” says Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson. “Underperforming or losing in New Hampshire would undercut that narrative.”
Trump had, arguably, already accomplished more than any previous amateur candidate. He showed the power of an Internet-savvy celebrity to snatch the political agenda from traditional gatekeepers in the media and at party headquarters. New Hampshire became a test of his gumption, his true commitment. Would he dig in for a long battle through the spring, or would he start scripting his exit? Minus the aura of an unstoppable force, he faced a drawn-out battle for control of the Republican Party–what is known in Trump’s world as a hostile takeover. Don’t imagine that money doesn’t matter to a rich man. Trump was already showing signs of spending fatigue, noting in a post-Iowa tweet that self-funding is “not worth it!” But after months of boasting about his wealth, he might not have an alternative. Aggrieved working-class Americans will attend his rallies; they will turn out to vote for him. But would they be willing to help pay his campaign bills?
Rubio reached New Hampshire by dawn and made a beeline for the nearest group of coffee-drinking voters. The cat was out of the bag. His strong close in Iowa lifted his profile above the mass of candidates vying for the traditional Republican role of inevitable nominee. Now he must run flat out to escape their grasp, lest they pull him back down.
Insiders refer to his rivals en masse as “the governors,” and in the old political calculus, that was as good a credential as a would-be President could have. Not this time around. Ohio’s Kasich, New Jersey’s Christie and former governor Bush of Florida all limped into New Hampshire with nothing to show from Iowa and long odds against them. Like swimsuit salesmen in Antarctica, what they are peddling–insider experience and sober judgment–is not what a fed-up electorate wants to buy.
It was a measure of their shared plight that they aimed more fire at Rubio than at Cruz and Trump; they had to win the skirmish before they could fight the decisive battle. Christie, for example, needled Rubio in classic Jersey style, calling attention to the Senator’s small stature and insecure youth. Bush, by contrast, took a more well-mannered approach to Rubio’s comparative inexperience. He published an open letter from leading Florida Republicans.
But the near enemy was likely gaining strength. Rubio aides projected that his Iowa showing would earn him a 5% bump in the New Hampshire polls; Rubio certainly acted as if he was in command. “I didn’t get in this race to fight with other Republicans,” he said, shrugging off his foes. He preferred to rally Republicans to beat Democrat Hillary Clinton.
So how long can the governors continue? That’s another political calculation in search of a solution. Loyalists insist that the governors have ample resources to battle beyond New Hampshire and deep into the month of March. If anything, the bumper crop of votes and money in Iowa fed the speculation that this race could go all the way to the GOP convention. But party leaders want desperately to close ranks against the Trump and Cruz insurgencies. And if any candidates are going to heed the wishes of traditional party leaders, it would be the governors; they are, after all, members of the club.
“New Hampshire gives everyone a second chance,” said pedigreed GOP insider Henry Barbour with evaporating patience. “But if we are going to win the White House, the field will need to narrow quickly after that.”
No matter how unpredictable the season has been, each surprise is followed by a new round of confident predictions. We are a species attuned to patterns and plans, which is one of the reasons physics is easier than politics. The experts adjusted to the Iowa results by spotlighting Rubio, shorting Trump and projecting an operatic finish between two rookie Senators with Tea Party credentials and Cuban roots. A Presidential primary is a process of elimination, says veteran campaign consultant Scott Reed. “You win the nomination by taking people out one at a time.” And Day One of actual voting left Cruz and Rubio looking like hunters while the others looked more like prey.
“The betting money right now is on Senator Rubio,” one big-dollar bundler confided. And it certainly sounded like a fact-based analysis–until you factored in the knowledge that this same donor put his chips last year on another candidate entirely. Then the bets were on Bush. Another day, they favored Trump. Perhaps the smart money now is not wagering at all, not when the storm surge of democracy is plowing up the race course. Politics can be as unruly as human whim and passion, and bring us to a moment when, perhaps, all bets are off.
–With reporting by ALEX ALTMAN, TESSA BERENSON, SAM FRIZELL AND JAY NEWTON-SMALL/DES MOINES, IOWA; ZEKE MILLER/CONCORD, N.H.; and PHILIP ELLIOTT/MILFORD, N.H.
This appears in the February 15, 2016 issue of TIME.