Just before he left Iowa on his private jet, Donald Trump told supporters at what was supposed to be his victory party that he might return to buy a farm.
“We’re just so happy with the way everything’s worked out,” he said.
The sour look on the faces of his audience told a very different story.
Trump’s second-place finish to the conservative senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, was a humiliating setback.
The polls had been indicating the billionaire was on course to win Iowa, and there was a growing sense that if he could pull off a victory in such a rural, evangelical state, he could become unstoppable.
Even Trump had started to sound surprised about his immunity from defeat.
“It is, like, incredible,” he mused at one stop in Sioux City . “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
Instead, Trump, the candidate who seemed to be defying the laws of political gravity, has hit the ground with something of a bump. Cruz’s victory, securing 28% of the ballots to Trump’s 24% , was convincing. Florida senator Marco Rubio came in a close third, at 23%, raising the prospect of a formidable challenge from an establishment candidate.
“This was always going to be the hardest state for us to win,” a senior figure in the Trump campaign said late on Monday. “The fact is we’re still unbelievably strong everywhere else in the country.”
On paper, that much is true. Trump landed in New Hampshire in the early hours of Tuesday with a 20-point lead. He also enjoys substantial leads in South Carolina and Nevada, the next states in line, and is ahead in national polls. It is worth noting, of course, he led almost all the way in Iowa in similar polls.
Trump is still the Republican frontrunner. It is no longer far-fetched to consider a former host of the reality TV show The Apprentice occupying the White House.
But the nature of his defeat in Iowa raises difficult questions about whether his celebrity-fuelled appeal can translate into votes.
The final stretch of Trump’s road to defeat in Iowa began with a roll of the dice: his decision to boycott the final televised debate on Thursday , so close to the first-in-the-nation caucus.
It was trademark Trump. On the surface the decision was portrayed as fury at Fox News and its anchor, Megyn Kelly, over his treatment at an earlier debate.
Iowans appeared divided over whether had Trump had committed a self-inflicted wound, removing himself from the official debate at a time when many Republicans were still undecided, or simply pulled off another publicity coup, ensuring he remained on TV networks and Facebook news feeds.
As seven candidates lined up on a stage in Des Moines, Trump hosted a rival event, three miles away, which was ostensibly about raising money for veterans. He appeared to almost revel in the added uncertainty he had injected into the race.
“Will I get more votes? Will I get less votes?” he told supporters. “Who the hell knows?”
Preliminary entrance poll data indicated the debate boycott may have backfired, with only 14% of Republicans who made up their minds in the final week opting for Trump.
His decision to pull out of the debate was just one of a series of decisions that, in retrospect, could be considered strategic errors in a state such as Iowa, which expects its presidential candidates to work for their votes.
His Iowa campaign manager, Chuck Laudner, who masterminded Rick Santorum’s insurgent victory four years ago , calculated that a different strategy was needed for Trump, who had been at or near the top of the state’s polls for months.
Those polls showed that his base tended to be poorer, less educated and new to the political process. Many backers had never caucused before.
It was always known that Trump had a less sophisticated ground game than Cruz, whose intense race for the state was using a conventional playbook, focusing on building an army committed to an uncompromisingly religious cause.
Trump officials pinned their hopes on the billionaire having just enough of an organizational structure – and a committed enough support base – to translate energy into ballots.
The billionaire’s camp also decided to focus its firepower on Cruz , hammering him at every rally, accusing him of being “a total liar” and questioning whether his Canadian birth would disqualify him from the highest office .
But Trump ignored his flank, paying far less attention to Rubio , who put in a spirited performance at the Fox News debate and ended up winning more voters from Republicans making up their mind in the last week than any other candidate.
There was always something ad hoc about the Trump organization. At rallies, it was hard to find volunteers with practical information about caucuses. There were often more people selling cheap, Chinese-made memorabilia than identifiable campaign workers.
“Nothing matters if you don’t caucus,” Trump told supporters in Davenport on Saturday night, explaining how his website had important directions for how to vote. The next day, in Council Bluffs, the frontrunner forgot to repeat the message.
By the middle of the week, it was becoming clear that Trump was facing another, deeper question. Would evangelical Christians, many of whom live in rural towns and cities, support a brash, thrice-married billionaire from Manhattan with an inconsistent record on abortion and a habit of joking that the Bible is only marginally better than his own book?
‘I’m just going to wing it and see how it goes’
Moments before caucusing commenced at the Evangelical Free church in West Des Moines on Monday night, Donald Trump Jr, the frontrunner’s son, confided that the was unsure how he was going to persuade religious conservatives of his father’s credentials.
Republican caucus rules in Iowa allow surrogates – as well as candidates – to make short speeches shortly before ballots are cast.
“I’m just going to wing it and see how it goes,” Trump Jr said, when asked how he would address a Christian stronghold. “It could be a total disaster. Maybe it will be horrible, but I doubt it.”
The short speech was no disaster, but it was notable for its absence of any reference to the touchstone issues that appeal to the evangelical right.
“While he may be the billionaire from New York, he’s much more of a blue collar guy,” Trump Jr said. “He’s an ordinary American.”
It was a message the Trump campaign repeatedly tried to press home in Iowa , switching the format of his appearances in an attempt almost to tone down the candidate and make him more palatable to evangelical voters, who make up roughly two-thirds of the electorate.
In contrast to Democrat Bernie Sanders, who continued with huge, stadium-style rallies, Trump tinkered with his formula. Three days in a row, Trump appeared on stage for a sit-down, question-and-answer session with Jerry Falwell Jr, president of the evangelical Liberty University.
Falwell Jr told audiences they were not selecting “a pastor”. On Sunday in Council Bluffs, he said “render unto Caesar” meant “being a good citizen”.
“That means when you go into the voting booth you choose the candidate that is most qualified to run the country,” he said.
Sarah Palin, who is popular in evangelical circles, echoed that point, telling a TV interviewer that Iowans were not compelled to choose “the most Christiany, godliest candidate”, but the one best placed to run the country.
But it was impossible to shake the sense that Trump’s problem wasn’t that he was not “the most Christiany”, but that he was suspected of being the least. His efforts to rehabilitate his religious bona fides often looked forced.
He laid bare the limits of his biblical knowledge when he inadvertently referred to “two Corinthians”, instead of “Second Corinthians”. Days later, his campaign released a video which consisted only of him showing the camera a Bible he said was given to him by his mother.
When communion plates were passed along the pews at during a service Council Bluff’s First Christian church, Trump mistook the plates for the offertory, pulling out several bills from his pocket. An Associated Press reporter heard him admit to staffers: “I thought it was for the offering.”
Trump’s impulse to reach into his pocket was perhaps no coincidence. He was, by that stage, routinely doling out $100,000 checks to veterans at nearly every campaign stop, telling supporters he was distributing the proceeds of the fundraising event he hosted instead of taking part in the debate.
That, too, spoke to a shift in Trump’s tone. This was not the ruthless property tycoon but the patrician, repeatedly telling audiences “you have to have a heart” as he handed out huge donations to local charities, the recipients walking on stage like the winners of a gameshow.
“How often do you see a presidential candidate giving money away instead of taking it?” Falwell Jr asked supporters in a school gymnasium in Council Bluffs on Sunday.
“With a hundred thousand you can do a lot, right?” Trump said. As the recipient walked off stage, he added: “Use it well.”
The Donald Trump Show
As Trump seeks to recapture his momentum in New Hampshire his backers will argue, with some justification, that he was uniquely ill suited to Iowa. The candidate himself made that argument to downbeat supporters at what would have been his victory party.
“I was told by everybody, do not to go to Iowa, you could never finish even in the top 10,” he said.
He enjoys more substantial leads in the next couple of states, all of which – with the exception of Nevada – will be primaries, in which the unique demands caucuses place on supporters will not be in play.
But his setback in Iowa inevitably raises the question of whether surveys showing a surge of support for him say more about his celebrity, and skill at stoking controversy, than his standing in the actual race.
On Saturday night, the audience who filled the rows of the Adler theatre stage in Davenport, on the eastern edge of the state, were as pumped as any other rally. But it spoke volumes that many of them sat back, watching the event while eating popcorn.
They had arrived to be entertained by a candidate who has injected excitement and novelty for voters who might otherwise find politics boring. This was a show they had seen before , and they knew all the punchlines.
When Trump asked the crowd who he would force to pay for a wall along the southern border, they roared back: “Mexico”.
But when questioned about why they supported Trump, and whether, where and when they intended to caucus for him, many came up short.
At least half appeared to have come from across the state border, in Illinois. It was the same the next day in Council Bluffs, on Iowa’s western fringe: many supporters said they had come from Nebraska.
People had been drawn from far and wide to see the Trump show. It has, until now, been captivating, but it has been built on a narrative that will be hard to sustain.
“We’re going to win,” Trump told supporters in Cedar Rapids, his last campaign stop in Iowa. “We’re going to win so much. You’re going to get so tired of winning.”
Trump supporters are still waiting for that taste of victory – and their candidate, so impregnable until now, must find out what he can learn from defeat.