Defeat Is Victory: How Candidates Spin Losses in Iowa

Maybe they exceeded expectations. Maybe they weren’t even trying that hard. Maybe they’re just starting to build momentum. The possibilities are endless.
Photographer: Eric Thayer

When Rudy Giuliani turned in a weak sixth-place finish with 4 percent in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, he didn't sound chastened. Everything was going according to plan, said the one-time Republican front-runner.

“I think we’re in good shape. We’re ahead in maybe 16, 18 of the 29 states that are coming up,” he said at the time. “This was the first one. I think it’s one that, quite honestly, we didn’t expect that we would win. And we didn’t put a lot of resources into it. And now we’ll move on to the others.”

Some outsiders were more bullish. “The result in Iowa could not have been better for Giuliani tactically,” wrote John Podhoretz in Commentary magazine, arguing that his opponents were weakened. “This is what Rudy needed,” said former Bush White House aide Ari Fleischer.

Four weeks later, Giuliani dropped out after a string of defeats.

Historically, Iowa is not a must-win state. Just three of the seven Republican nominees in the modern contested primary have won Iowa; the most recent one to do so was George W. Bush in 2000. But strong finishes in early states tend to be critical building blocks of successful campaigns—no modern Republican nominee has ever lost both Iowa and New Hampshire.

As a result, candidates and their supporters have a storied tradition of spinning defeat as victory. Maybe they exceeded expectations. Maybe they weren’t even trying that hard. Maybe they’re just starting to build momentum. The possibilities are endless.

Ahead of the Monday night caucuses, Republicans Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio—who place second and third, respectively, in recent polls—are already setting the stage to claim victory no matter what the outcome. 

Rubio's strategist flat-out declared that he doesn't expect to finish first or second. On CNN on Sunday, Rubio sounded decidedly at peace, saying, “We feel good about our team and the work we've done here. What it leads to, we'll see.” On the same show, Cruz braced his supporters for a long fight. “We're competing hard here on the ground here in Iowa. We're competing hard on the ground in New Hampshire, in South Carolina and Nevada. And we're running a national campaign.”

Ron Bonjean, a veteran Republican strategist, said there is even more pressure on campaigns that finish fourth and below.

“The expectations game in Iowa is key towards establishing a narrative of playing the long game,” said Bonjean. “Campaigns that don't make it into the top three can stay afloat with donors if they believe there is a broader strategy afoot.”

Bonjean also said “a big red flag” that signals trouble for a candidate is his or her allies talking “more about having an organizational strategy towards bringing in delegates by Super Tuesday” than finishing strong in Iowa and New Hampshire.

In 2004, Democrat Howard Dean came in a distant third place in the Iowa caucuses, after looking poised to win just weeks earlier. But he said he was thrilled.

“I'm delighted to finish in the top three,” he told CNN at the time. “On to New Hampshire.” In the grand scheme of things, he said, the result was a victory. “If you had told us one year ago that we were going to come in third in Iowa, we would have given everything to that.”

Dean never recovered. He dropped out after failing to win any of the first 17 states.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton's shocking third-place finish in Iowa prompted more somber reflection than spin—but her outlook was decidedly upbeat.

“We have a long way to go, but I am confident and optimistic, both about the campaign, but maybe more importantly about our country,” she said after the results came in. “We have always planned to run a national campaign all the way through the early contests.”

It was the beginning of the end for Clinton. She went on to win New Hampshire but ultimately lost a long fight to the victor in Iowa, then-Senator Barack Obama.

John Edwards edged out Clinton in Iowa by the slimmest of margins, and his senior adviser Joe Trippi claimed a victory of sorts for second place. “The person hurt in all this is Hillary Clinton,” Trippi told Time magazine. “They outspent us three-to-one at least. And we beat her. ... I have to be honest, I didn't think with a turnout of more than 200,000 that we'd be where we are in this thing.”

On the Republican side, John McCain came in fourth in the Iowa caucuses, a genuinely decent finish for a candidate who was operating on a low budget and focusing heavily on New Hampshire.

“I think that the lesson of this election in Iowa is that, one, you can’t buy an election in Iowa, and, two, that negative campaigns don’t work. They don’t work there, and they don’t work here in New Hampshire. They’re not going to work,” McCain said.

It was a dig at rival Mitt Romney, whom McCain defeated in New Hampshire en route to winning the nomination.

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