Somehow, against all the evidence, Rubio has successfully spun that he's gunning only for third place here. In sharp contrast, Cruz's campaign, touting its superior ground game, has openly pined for and predicted victory. The result: In the closing hours before Monday's caucuses, Iowa is suddenly fraught with risk for Cruz while Rubio, who sits comfortably in third in most public and private polling, is almost guaranteed to meet or beat diminished expectations.
For much of Saturday, the political world was treated to the latest in a series of rounds of Marco Rubio Media Hype, featuring breathless stories about the senator's "surge," "momentum," and inevitable "rise." Credible new polling suggested the fawning coverage was misplaced, which curtailed the hype -- for about an hour or two before it began anew.
This Politico piece, published yesterday, captured the oddity of the expectations surrounding the Florida senator's prospects in Iowa, where the article claims Rubio "can lose to [Ted] Cruz on Monday and walk away looking like the winner."
My point is not to pick on Politico. On the contrary, this approach has quickly become the conventional wisdom across many news organizations and much of the political world.
What's odd is why anyone would choose to see the race this way. When Politico says Team Rubio has "successfully spun ... against all evidence," it helps capture a curious dynamic: the media is effectively admitting that the media has come to believe something the media knows isn't true, but will pretend is true anyway, for reasons no one wants to talk about.
As recently as mid-November -- hardly ancient history -- Rubio's own campaign manager talked on the record about his belief that the senator might actually win the Iowa caucuses.
Barely two months later, however, we're now supposed to believe that a third-place finish -- which is to say, a loss -- would be a great, momentum-creating triumph. It's a claim that we're all supposed to simply play along with, because the Hype Machine says so.
Coverage of campaigns can get downright weird when a candidate becomes a media darling.
For the record, I'm not saying Rubio will finish third; he might do significantly better. My point is we're watching a silly "narrative" take root before voting even begins: a GOP candidate who expected to finish first in Iowa will have actually "won" if he comes in third, based on "spin" literally everyone involved recognizes as insincere nonsense.
There's no reason to treat such assumptions as serious analysis.
Postscript: Just as an aside, if Rubio ends up doing very well in Iowa -- or very well by the standards of pundits inclined to present the results in the most favorable light possible -- future candidates may decide they don't have to spend that much time in the Hawkeye State.
Remember, Rubio deliberately took a gamble on a risky path: fewer events, fewer on-the-ground staffers, a smaller field operation, more reliance on TV and packing in a bunch of appearances in the closing weeks. If that works for him, others will follow the example, and the Iowa caucuses may see some dramatic changes going forward.