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Ted Cruz (left) and Hillary Clinton (right) in Des Moines, Iowa, on Monday night

CREDIT: AP Photo/Chris Carlson (Cruz); Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images (Clinton)

Iowa Voters Upend the Election

In the first contest of 2016, Republican Ted Cruz comes from behind to win, while Democrat Hillary Clinton barely edges out Bernie Sanders

After months of rallies, debates, polls, and media glare, the voters had their first chance to speak last night, with Texas Senator Ted Cruz winning the Iowa Caucuses on the Republican side and delivering a blow to billionaire real estate developer Donald Trump.

Among Democrats, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton edged out Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders by a razor-thin margin, but most pundits were declaring the contest a virtual tie: Clinton won with 49.9 percent to Sanders’s 49.6 percent.

“Tonight is a victory for the grass roots,” said Cruz. “Tonight is a victory for courageous conservatives all across Iowa and our great nation.”

Cruz’s win throws into question the depth of support for Trump, who has been the Republican front-runner for months. Fueled by a surge of support from evangelical Christians, Cruz won nearly 28 percent of the Republican vote, compared to Trump’s 24 percent.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida finished a strong third, with 23 percent of the vote, bolstering his case to consolidate the support of Republicans uneasy about the two top finishers.

The virtual tie between Clinton and Sanders instantly raised the stakes for their next face off, the primary next week in New Hampshire. Sanders holds a solid lead in polls there and has the advantage of being from neighboring Vermont.

Though the Iowa result was likely a disappointment for Clinton, who was once way ahead of Sanders in the polls there, she said she welcomed the challenge Sanders is posing for the Democratic nomination.

“I stand here tonight breathing a big sigh of relief—thank you, Iowa!” Clinton said, adding: “It is rare that we have the opportunity we do now—to have a real contest of ideas.”

Next Up: New Hampshire

The Iowa caucuses are the first of a series of contests that will last many months and ultimately decide the Republican and Democratic nominees for the presidential election in November. Next is the New Hampshire primary, on February 9.

Trump, who leads in both New Hampshire and national polls, now needs to demonstrate that his upstart candidacy can withstand a loss. Trump has repeatedly defied expectations and attracted huge, adoring crowds to his campaign events.

“I was told by everybody: Do not go to Iowa; you could never finish even in the top 10,” Trump assured his supporters, framing his second-place showing in Iowa as a victory.

Cruz has trailed well behind in recent New Hampshire polls, but with Trump’s aura of invincibility now gone, Trump could prove vulnerable there as well. The question is whether Cruz can find success with New Hampshire’s more-secular voters. If he can, that could signal that Cruz has the potential to unite a wider Republican electorate.

Yet the strong Iowa finish by Rubio, the choice of most Republican voters who said they made their decisions in the last week, will allow him to begin making the case to Republican donors, activists, and elected officials that he would be the strongest Republican to face off against Clinton or Sanders in the general election.

On the Democratic side, Sanders didn’t get the decisive win his supporters had hoped for, but his strong finish indicates that he isn’t the fringe candidate many assumed him to be when he entered the race months ago. Sanders, who calls himself a Democratic socialist, has focused on income inequality and gathered deep support—especially from young people.

“I think the people of Iowa have sent a very profound message to the political establishment, to the economic establishment, and by the way, to the media establishment,” Sanders said. “That is, given the enormous crises facing our country, it is just too late for establishment politics and establishment economics.”

The results suggested that Sanders could be a tough opponent to Clinton for a long time. Sanders’s  performance in Iowa was a significant milestone in a campaign in which he began 40 percentage points behind Clinton when they both declared their candidacies last spring. Many Democrats privately dismissed Sanders as a left-wing fringe candidate who had no real chance of defeating Clinton. Not anymore.

The field of candidates is slightly smaller heading into the New Hampshire primary next week: After weak showings in Iowa, Republican Mike Huckabee and Democrat Martin O’Malley have dropped out of the race.

For other Republican candidates like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Ohio Governor John Kasich, a strong showing in New Hampshire may be do or die.

With reporting by Jonathan Martin and Patrick Healy of The New York Times.

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