Iowa's message more important than Trump's loss

Story highlights

  • All the talk about the power of insurgency in 2016 turned out to be true in Iowa, says Julian Zelizer
  • Cruz and Trump get majority of GOP vote, while Sanders runs very strong race, he says

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)All the talk about the power of insurgency in 2016 turned out to be true in Iowa. If either party was expecting the conventional party candidates to stop the tumult, they didn't.

While Donald Trump did not win the Republican caucus, Ted Cruz did. And Cruz is just as anti-establishment, just as outlandish and brazen, and just as off-center politically as his billionaire counterpart (and perhaps more so, many would agree).
With Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich performing poorly, the results from Iowa will certainly be seen as a sign that the GOP "establishment" is not strong.
    It is crucial to remember that for a long time most experts assumed that Cruz would win in Iowa. Given the state's strong evangelical base, Cruz offered the kind of red meat that caucusgoers were thirsting for.
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    Yet, equally relevant as the Cruz victory was the fact that Donald Trump did perform relatively well in a contest in which he hadn't been expected to be much of a factor until recently. His eyes have always been on New Hampshire.
    In some ways, the most important news was that Marco Rubio performed so well. He came in well above all the other non-Cruz and Trump candidates in the pack.
    With Jeb Bush languishing near the bottom, Rubio emerges from Iowa as the non-maverick candidate who is best poised to move forward in the "establishment lane" when it opens. This is why he could deliver an address that sounded like a victory speech. In the winnowing campaign, Rubio can claim victory and the other Republicans are one step closer to dropping out.

    Democratic nail-biter

    The Democratic race turned out to be a nail-biter as only a few tenths of a percentage point appeared to separate the two candidates late Monday night. Even if Hillary Clinton holds on to a narrow lead, Bernie Sanders put on an extremely strong performance.
    A few months ago, the notion that a democratic socialist could seriously challenge a front-runner who has been preparing to win in the Iowa caucuses since 2008 would have seemed ludicrous. But that is no longer the case.
    Sanders has inspired and he has mobilized, and Clinton should see that she needs to strengthen her campaign and do something to energize Democratic voters or she will be in for another long and brutal primary battle, echoing 2008 in some ways.
    Whatever one thinks of the feasibility of a Sanders candidacy in the general election, it is impossible to ignore that his message has tapped directly into something that is very much on the minds of Democratic voters.

    The mavericks are in charge

    So we leave Iowa without knowing much more than when we started — other than the electorate in both parties is restless and the maverick candidates are dictating the tone of this competition. Everyone should remember that there is a long line of victors in Iowa who didn't go on to do much more. Mike Huckabee, who suspended his campaign Monday night, would be the first to tell them.
    But in Iowa Cruz-Trump on the Republican side and Sanders on the Democratic have demonstrated that there is serious wind behind the sails of insurgents. Things are going to get even more intense.
    The remaining candidates will double down in New Hampshire, where the independents are much stronger and the voting less predictable than in Iowa, to try to pose another blow to all the candidates who assumed that this competition was theirs for the taking.