Iowa, it seems, is a great indicator for which Republican candidate will not get the nomination. The particularly interesting thing about this political season’s primary though is that the Iowa swing toward Cruz – and the continued bolstering of Cruz via the Religious Right – was not only not enough to stop Trump, but it was also just enough to stop anyone else.
It’s the great irony of the primary so far: Trump’s arch nemesis "Lyin’ Ted" was exactly what he needed to knock out any more mainstream contenders. With more Republicans voters opposed to Trump than supporting him (Trump won more votes than any individual candidate, but more voters overall preferred other candidates to the Orange Menace), the key to Trump’s success was the division of the opposition. The Religious Right likes to flatter itself that it is the Kingmaker of the Republican Party, but as Trump’s success demonstrates that's just not true anymore. On the contrary, the Religious Right’s power is not enough to pick the party's own kings, but it's still formidable enough to throw a wrench in the process and screw everyone over.
Now, the voting base who wanted a political messiah instead of a leader isn't solely to be, let's say, credited with Trump. Cruz’s own efforts surely can't be sold short in all of this. After all, it was Cruz who campaigned on painting the kinds of candidates who had the best chance in a general election as the conservative witch-of-the-day. Cruz, who was a decided long shot for the general, worked hard to whittle away as much support as he possibly could – starting well before the actual campaign. And this came largely in the form of trashing the guys who were far less of long shots. Now, that's politics: take the other guys down to build yourself up.
The problem was that Cruz was building up a guy (himself) who was, frankly, an unlikeable prick. So he could build a moderately strong coalition of religious extremists and tea party extremists; but it was never going to be enough to topple Trump, and Cruz lacked any sort of appeal outside those groups.
Even when the #NeverTrump crowd turned to him, it was done out of absolute desperation, and with their noses firmly pinched. Like Lindsey Graham said, Cruz was still poison. Cruz was only, ever turned to as being marginally better than the alternative; as poison to Trump’s shot. Which is kind of what you can expect when you go out of your way to be a prick to pretty much everyone. Couple that with all the charm of an eel hellbent on selling you a car that won't start, and, well, you can't be surprised when people call you Lucifer in the flesh. And you can't be surprised when you fail to win over a majority of anyone.
On the other hand, if a candidate with more mainstream appeal had been Trump’s chief rival, instead of any overly ambitious eel in a human suit, Trump’s chances might not have been so good. Any other Republican running would necessarily have been more religious, and therefore more likely to get the Religious Right’s vote, than Trump. So they could have nailed down that part of the base. More importantly, they would have had a much better time with the entire #NeverTrump crowd.
Instead, Cruz’s purity politics turned the race into the kind of anti-establishment blood sport that bolstered the non-politician Trump. No matter how he tried to cast himself as the One True Believer, Cruz was still a politician, still part of the system he was trashing. In building up the myth of the righteous outsider, Cruz built up the Trump myth. Furthermore, his feeble attempts to paint Trump as the establishment candidate were never particularly strong, but once the establishment embraced him as the anti-Trump, they became downright laughable.
Meanwhile, though, in tarnishing the party and drawing enough of the anti-Trump Republican electorate to his own doomed efforts, he effectively squashed any hope of a viable mainstream anti-Trump candidate. The question was one type of extremist versus another – with Cruz sharing and even exceeding some of Trump’s more mortifying stances. The radical elements of the anyone-but-Trump camp pushed toward a candidate who was himself so radical that many Republicans could not in good conscience support him except as an absolute last resort. Even then, as the support for Kasich indicates, there were many who just couldn't bring themselves to take the poison.
In the end, splitting the anti-Trump crowd, siphoning so much of it too far right for the rest of the party, was exactly what Trump needed to win. A segment of the party that could have united to defeat Trump was split between the extreme and moderate wings, by a self-styled savior.
Cruz’s messianic delusions were key to Trump’s victory.