Ted Cruz, the firebrand Texas senator, has won Iowa’s Republican caucus, as Hillary Clinton secured the narrowest of victories over Democratic rival Bernie Sanders in the first votes of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Mr Cruz’s victory represents a blow to Donald Trump, the New York property mogul who had dominated the GOP race for months. With 99 per cent of precincts reporting in the first state to vote in the race for the White House, Mr Cruz had won 28 per cent compared with Mr Trump’s 24 per cent.
In another setback for the billionaire’s anti-establishment campaign, Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American senator favoured by establishment Republicans, won 23 per cent — an upset for pollsters who mostly forecast a Trump victory and had not predicted the strength of Mr Rubio’s support.
In the Democratic race, Mrs Clinton, the former secretary of state who is making her second White House run, found herself in what Mr Sanders called a “virtual tie” with the Vermont senator, a self-described Democratic socialist.
Once the last precincts reported in the early hours of Tuesday, Mrs Clinton had 49.9 per cent to Mr Sanders’s 49.5 per cent.
Mrs Clinton told supporters she was “breathing a big sigh of relief”. In an implicit acknowledgment of the battle ahead, she said she was looking forward to getting into the debate with Mr Sanders, adding that “we finally began to have one of the most important, substantive conversations that the Democratic party could have”.
Mr Sanders said that “what Iowa has begun tonight is a political revolution”. The message he took from the vote was that “given the enormous crises facing the country it is too late for establishment politics and establishment economics”.
Mr Cruz described his win as a “victory for the grass roots”, saying voters had served notice that the next Republican nominee would not be chosen by the media, the “Washington establishment” or lobbyists. He pledged to return to the free market, constitutional liberties and “Judeo Christian values that built this great nation”.
Mr Rubio said the outcome underscored that his optimistic message about a “new American century” had proved naysayers wrong.
“They told me I had no chance because my hair is not grey enough and my boots are too high. They told me I had to wait my turn, that I had to wait in line,” said Mr Rubio. “But tonight here in Iowa the people of this great state have sent a very clear message. After seven years of Barack Obama we are not waiting any longer to take our country back.”
Mr Rubio’s performance is a relief to establishment Republicans, who have been panicking over the prospect of Mr Trump or Mr Cruz winning the nomination as they believe either man would lose the general election.
While Mr Cruz secured a victory, Mr Rubio’s strong showing significantly improves the chances that mainstream Republicans will rally around the young senator and that wealthy Republicans will put their money behind his campaign.
Michele Swers, a Georgetown University politics professor, said the outcome was a setback for Mr Trump “because his basic message is he is a winner and now he lost the first contest for which he was ever on a ballot”.
“This is also a big win for Rubio who beat expectations and can now more easily claim to be the establishment alternative and will begin to try to get more of the big donors who have been sitting on the sidelines,” she said.
At the Sheraton hotel in Des Moines, Mr Trump put a brave face on a result that was clearly disappointing for the tycoon who is accustomed to calling his opponents “losers”.
He said he had exceeded early expectations and that he was “absolutely honoured” by the result. Shifting the focus to New Hampshire, which holds the first primary next week, he predicted he would win the state and go on to defeat Mrs Clinton if she was the Democratic nominee.
In an uncharacteristically brief address, Mr Trump also declared his love for Iowa and added: “I think I might come here and buy a farm.”
The atmosphere at Mr Cruz’s victory party was ecstatic, with a rock band pumping out upbeat classics as supporters enjoyed beers, burgers and popcorn.
Kai Newell, 17, said the result showed “what we saw coming all along, he’s the principled, constitutional conservative that we all know and stand by . . . people have finally [come] and stuck it to Trump, that’s what he deserved”.
Based on their respective share of the vote, Mr Cruz gained seven delegates, while Mr Trump and Mr Rubio both secured six delegates, who will attend the Republican convention in Ohio this summer.
Three other establishment Republicans — former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Ohio governor John Kasich and New Jersey governor Chris Christie — polled a total of only 7 per cent. While Mr Bush was never expected to perform well in Iowa, he won only 3 per cent of the vote — a result that underscores the difficulty the son and brother of two former presidents has had gaining traction with voters.
Martin O’Malley, the Democratic former Maryland governor, suspended his campaign after gaining just 0.6 per cent. Mike Huckabee, the Republican former governor of Arkansas, also tweeted that he was abandoning the race.
Reports from around Iowa pointed to a higher turnout than 2012. At Drake University in Des Moines, Karen Lambert, who was supervising one Republican caucus, said turnout was five times higher than in 2012.
Maddie Hiatt, a graphic design and magazine journalism student voting there, said she was supporting Mr Trump because he was not beholden to any corporations.
Over recent days, Mr Rubio and other Republicans stepped up attacks on Mr Trump in a bid to cast the former star of The Apprentice as unqualified to be commander-in-chief and unable to win the general election. Those efforts appeared to have yielded some results on Monday night.
Rick Santorum, the Republican candidate who won the Iowa caucus in 2012 but secured only 1 per cent this time, told the FT ahead of the caucuses that voters were “looking for someone who sort of blows things up”.
“The problem is, there are only so many days in a row you can blow things and eventually you have to start building things.” Neither Mr Trump nor Mr Cruz had a record of working with others to do so, he said.
While there is dismay among mainstream Republicans at the success of Mr Cruz and Mr Trump, one Iowan Republican operative jokingly put on a brave face: “If four years of Jimmy Carter gave us Ronald Reagan, eight years of Barack Obama is going to give us someone great.”