I remember about fifteen years ago I was watching an interview with legendary Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo about whether he ever felt pressure on his job, even though he was pretty much personally responsible for turning Michigan State into a perennial powerhouse. I’m sure Izzo wasn’t the first person to make this point, but he was the first person I ever heard say it.
He said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that “Success creates a monster that’s named Expectations. And once the monster has been created, the monster has to be fed or it eats you instead.”
Donald Trump professes not to understand the phenomenon of the expectations monster, but he’s been the victim of it this week. After creating the impression that his victory in Iowa was inevitable, and trumpeting about it for weeks, he claims that he cannot fathom why no one is referring to his second place finish as a success, whereas they are calling Rubio’s third place finish a stunning victory.
The reason for this is that Rubio does understand the expectations monster, and both he and his campaign have steadfastly avoided it for as long as they can. When I talked to his campaign earlier this week about how they expected to finish in Iowa, they steadfastly refused to mention – even off the record – any kind of talk about expectations at all. They wouldn’t speculate whether he would finish ahead of Cruz, ahead of Trump, over 20%, over 15%, or even over 10%.
They would say that they were very confident, and they would say off the record that they expected to surprise people, but all discussion of what that might look like was clearly verboten, down to the lowliest foot soldier. They knew good and well that under performing against expectations is virtually the worst thing that can happen to a Presidential campaign.
Rubio was able to get away with this because everyone in Iowa was focused on the Cruz v. Trump rumble, which was endlessly entertaining in addition to being the most justifiable story in light of what the polls showed. However, Iowa was likely his one free pass in the expectations department. Now that Rubio has stunned the world once, everyone expects him to perform in New Hampshire.
Realistically, Rubio now needs to finish second place in New Hampshire, or face disappointing the expectations monster. He so completely devastated the establishment candidates in Iowa that losing to any of them in New Hampshire will be seen as a step back, even if Kasich and Christie have spent a lot more time, money and effort in New Hampshire than Rubio has. Given the fact that Cruz’s appeal to evangelicals will not be as helpful to him in New Hampshire, he should also expect to perform better than Cruz there. Losing to anyone not named Donald Trump next Tuesday will slow, if not stop, Rubio’s momentum.
The worst possible result that Rubio could put a positive face on would be a third place finish behind Trump and Cruz. A third place finish behind Trump and either Kasich or Christie (or Jeb) would be a strategic disaster. The path to the nomination for a candidate who does not outright win either Iowa or New Hampshire is very narrow and necessarily involves a quick clearing of the field down to three candidates.
If Rubio loses to one of the establishment governors in the race, he will face a prolonged challenge from one of them that will last at least through Super Tuesday, as they will be able to fundraise and pitch their strength as the not-Trump/Cruz candidate for at least that long. If Rubio cannot consolidate that vote quickly, his chances at actually winning fade quickly.
The Rubio campaign entered Iowa with relatively low expectations. They won’t be able to do it again. They know they need to finish ahead of all the Establishment candidates – and probably ahead of Cruz – to maintain momentum and carry them through to a Super Tuesday scenario that won’t look like an inevitable bloodbath. We’ll see how their campaign performs coming down the stretch in New Hampshire.