President Rick Santorum, President Mike Huckabee, President Bob Dole, President Tom Harkin; wherever your political loyalties lie, the cacophony over the apparent stakes of the Iowa Caucus can at least be countered by the consolation that winning it doesn’t mean a candidate will be the party’s nominee, much less the president of the United States.

There is a partisan success difference. The thing tends to matter more to Team Blue’s guy (or gal). Since Iowa got first dibs in 1972, the Republican Caucus winner has been the party’s nominee three times. For the Democrats, it’s a straighter, narrower path – five candidates who won Iowa have gone on to fight in the general election.

Based on this and an overstuffed field of candidates, logic suggests that Iowa is more about who loses – and therefore drops out – than who wins. The first to go was former Gov. Martin O’Malley, the squat third leg in the Democrat trio who threw in the towel at about 10 PM EST on Monday. Republican former Gov. Mike Huckabee followed a half hour later. Fundamentally, you need not win the Caucus, but you need to finish high to have a likely shot at the presidency. And winning either Iowa or next week’s New Hampshire primary is heartily recommended unless you are Bill Clinton in 1992.

The recent feeling that Trump was inevitable (which followed closely on the heels of the feeling that said he was impossible) was dampened by the fact that news outlets began to call the thing for Sen. Ted Cruz at 10:30 EST. Cruz won at a respectable 28 percent. It took another hour for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to maybe-sort-of-win over Sen. Bernie Sanders, though that vote was historically narrow and the final delegate was still being fought over at press time.

Iowa is an odd state. It was the fourth in the U.S. to legalize gay marriage, yet it has a massive evangelical contingent. That contingent being the folks who made Santorum the winner in 2012 and Huckabee in 2008. Cruz nicely sums up that bipolar spirit, which, to be fair, America as a whole also possesses. He plays up his freedom-cred, but he often seems to end up going more for God.

When Cruz was first elected in 2012, there was a libertarian contingent that felt optimistic about his chances for reducing the power of government. In the years since Cruz has managed to annoy his fellows in Congress while diluting his civil liberties credentials on matters such as the war on drugs, war and privacy. As a nod to the fact that the gay culture war is dead but not buried, on Sunday Cruz had the Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson stumping and calling gay marriage “evil.” Was this what translated to so many Iowans approvingly citing Cruz’s values, which they profess to share, according to an Associated Press entrance poll?

Alarmingly, for those somehow still convinced he’s a sideshow, Trump managed to do an impression of a real politician when he lost. That is, he classily accepted second place (at 24 percent) and heartily thanked the people of Iowa. Locals love being pandered to about their geographical location, and someone has taught Trump this fact. The political-Twitter schadenfreude over his loss was still strong, however. Maybe Trump’s winks at the Iowa-powerful evangelical block were not enough to overpower his “Two Corinthians”-style blunders. Maybe Trump is just a journey, not a destination.

As predicted, Marco Rubio came in a close third place and speechified as if he won. Whatever momentum gave then-Congressman Ron Paul a second place Iowa finish in 2012 is scattered bizarrely among Trump and Sanders and, to a seemingly lesser extent, Sen. Rand Paul and Cruz. This year Little Paul got fifth and one delegate, which could have been worse. However, even among college students, student council president of the neocons Rubio kicked his ass.

Sanders really is the man that young voters are going gaga for to a staggering degree.

Sanders really is the man that young voters are going gaga for to a staggering degree. Eighty-four percent of 17-29-year-old Democrats went for Sanders, and 58 percent of 29-44-year olds. Whether Sanders momentum is more Ron Paul philosophical, or more Barack Obama results-originated, remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a bellwether of feelings.

Now Sanders needs to entice the seniors, and Clinton must find some way to get the millennials on her side. But what is more of an immovable object, the over-45 stigma against self-proclaimed socialism or the inability of Hillary Clinton to relate to millennials?

Even though he resembles a cartoon villain – perhaps a warlock of some kind – and has the charm to match, Cruz is a good horse to back by some arguments. He doesn’t have the carnival absurdity of Trump, but he has similar “anti-insider” credibility by virtue of being disliked by his coworkers. He has a whiff of civil libertarian but not to the alienating extent of someone named Paul. He’s got reality TV Christians cursing gay marriage and he vows to “see if sand can glow in the dark” when it comes to the fight against ISIS.

On the other hand, the truly hawkish may not trust Cruz’s bona fides. Rubio may not have the anti-immigration clout some candidates have, but conventional wisdom and theoretical match-ups have him able to beat Clinton. Rubio is a starched and ironed politician, like 2012 nominee Mitt Romney. Unlike Romney, Rubio has real conservative bite to him. At this point, the GOP can nominate one Hispanic man or the other and look cutting edge while sticking to some dependable status quo attitudes. Quite simply, Marco Rubio is a more diverse George W. Bush (who would also be “soft” on immigrants when compared to 2016’s GOP). And George W. Bush was elected, if you recall.

For all of the fevered excitement on Twitter, and the breathless on-the-scene cable news reports, the Iowa Caucus is still not just the end but the beginning of the exhausting story of who is going to sit in the Oval Office. It’s vaguely interesting that Cruz won and Sanders did so well. If you distrust literally every candidate with a fighting chance, Iowa just ushers in in earnest the year of pitchy drama and hand-wringing. That which will result in the same entitled social engineers ruling over people they’ve never met. As bad as the endless debates have gotten – as tiresome as the process is – at least they’re what happens before America chokes and picks someone.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Twitter: @lucystag.

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