Decision 2016: Lessons From Iowa Caucuses
USA Today

Although the Democratic race may be too close to call, it is not too early to learn some lessons from the first contest of the 2016 race to the White House. It's very exciting to see some real results for the first time after over a year of simple talk and conjecture. However, we must dive deep into the numbers and see what we can find, lessons as we go forward. Let's look at some key findings, four from the Republican side, and one from the Democratic end.

1) Ted Cruz Looks Like A Champion, But There's A Long Way To Go

After slipping in the polls in January, the media pounded the Cruz campaign, stating that his path to the nomination was as narrow as a country one-lane dirt road. After the Iowa Caucuses, his path looks more like a parade route.

He now looks like a genius after his "New York Values" comments aimed at Donald Trump. Although many believed Trump got the better of the debate, it is clear that the evangelical voters of Iowa didn't buy it. Cruz advisors played a brilliant game, giving him the right ammunition. Ted Cruz worked harder than any other candidate in this state, zipping throughout the state's 99 counties in a powerful blitz.

Cruz is one of the most unique voices in the race, harping on his likeness to Ronald Reagan's true conservatism. The grassroots force he enjoys is possibly stronger than anyone since the Reagan days, and he hopes to ride that to the nomination.

The one drawback of Cruz's situation is how many resources he used in Iowa. He doesn't have a lot going for him in New Hampshire, although this win may give him a boost. South Carolina seems to be Trump country right now as well. His next place that he could grab a victory is Nevada, and it's going to be very difficult as Marco Rubio will be going hard for a victory there, as well as, of course, Trump. The path for Ted Cruz looks brighter now, but he has an odd situation ahead of him with two Southerner-attracting candidates right there with him.

2) Donald Trump Missing Final Debate Hurts Him, But He Won't Be Down Too Long

"Pop." That was the sound of Donald Trump's ego, if only for a nanosecond, when he congratulated Ted Cruz on his victory. For a man that rarely has to concede anything, that moment truly must have been very painful. It is clear that "The Donald" lost quite a lot in the final days and hours to Rubio, who almost jumped him in the battle for 2nd place.

Trump's absence from the Fox News debate obviously nailed him in his coffin in the fight for Iowa. The open air for Cruz and Rubio gave them key listeners, and their messages resonated. It felt like a slap in the face to the Republicans in Iowa that Trump would miss the opportunity to plead his case.

There is little doubt, though, that Donald Trump will carry New Hampshire, and he also looks almost impenetrable in South Carolina. He will be able to gain stability once again, as he's in this for the long slog.

One thing to mention, though, is that his invincibility factor is diminished. He preaches and bloviates about how he is a winner, and just this one loss proves he is not going to waltz to the nomination.

Whether he brings out some bigger bazookas after tonight to go after Cruz and Rubio, that remains to be seen. But our bet is, he's about to bring out his whole armada.

3) Marco Rubio Can Take A Lot Out Of Iowa

"Rubiomentum" is true. Even though he had a slip-up in his debate performance (going head-to-head against Jeb Bush), simply being at the debate, unlike Donald Trump, helped the fiery Floridian mightily. His passionate, electrifying speeches fire up the conservative base, and he pushed his way to a strong finish tonight.

Rubio, surprisingly, almost tied Trump among evangelical voters. He galvanized Iowa Christians that formerly supported Trump, slowly sucking from the New York billionaire's base. Cruz will fear this shifting going forward, as he needs the Christian vote to overtake the Trump machine.

This is one situation that Marco Rubio needs to focus on: If he wants to win the nomination, he's got to start attacking Cruz even more heavily now. He needs that electorate to jump to his side, as the two are currently splitting the anti-Trump section. Trump may have peaked in support. The one who takes the most voters who are against Trump will have a great shot at winning the nomination. If it is completely split where it is, evenly between Rubio and Cruz, Trump may very well get the nomination instead.

4) Jeb Bush & Chris Christie Absolutely Flop, Mike Huckabee Does The Right Thing, And Ben Carson Must Reconsider Campaign

As the singer Prince once crooned, Money Don't Matter Tonight. Jeb Bush had all the cash in the world, and he did horribly. Obviously he didn't throw all his ducks in the Hawkeye State, but his position was embarrassing nonetheless.

Chris Christie aimed to be the top governor in the Caucuses. He was the 2nd worst, just ahead of Jim Gilmore. Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Mike Huckabee all placed higher than Chris Christie. Although the big man from New Jersey didn't care much about Iowa, this is a horrific night for his campaign.

Mike Huckabee, suspending his campaign almost immediately after the first returns surfaced, did the smartest thing he could do. The 2008 Iowa winner never did gain much traction, and all but endorsed Donald Trump by appearing with him at a veterans' rally the night of the Fox News debate. Huckabee knew that it was time to clear the field, and he did the humble thing by dropping out.

Ben Carson, though, did not. Although he came in 4th with about 9% of the vote, there simply doesn't seem to be a path to the nomination for the neurosurgeon. The voters from the South, a key group for Carson to build votaries, will undoubtedly be deciding between Cruz, Trump, and Rubio now. A rumor had started before tonight that Dr. Carson would suspend his campaign, but leaders in his organization are saying it is bogus. Sadly, even though he holds on to hope, his chances are all but completely dried up.

5) Bernie Sanders Needed An Outright Win

Nobody expected Sen. Sanders to reach this point. He started his long shot campaign with pitiful numbers nearing the levels of Martin O'Malley. Slowly but surely, with a grassroots campaign that resembles Ted Cruz's, Sanders has pulled into a dead heat with Hillary Clinton.

Tonight, although he didn't do as well as some polls predicted, Sanders proved that his campaign was no fluke, essentially tying Clinton in Iowa. This truly is unprecedented, and shows the lack of trust Democrats have in Clinton to be their nominee.

However, Sanders has a deep-rooted problem that is no fault of his own. The make-up of the primaries, with South Carolina and Super Tuesday right after New Hampshire, hurts his chances drastically. Certainly he will run away with New Hampshire, but the losses he will take from SC and all of the primaries on March 1st will suck all of his momentum from the Granite State. He will need to keep this grassroots campaign going, and maybe use the gloves and attack Clinton a bit more.

He can not be written off whatsoever, as he has proven so many doubters wrong. But he has a long, difficult climb from here.