Ted Cruz has been gaining over the past two months or so in national polls and, crucially, in Iowa, which is favorable terrain for his candidacy and probably a must-win state for him. More than at any other point in the race so far, Cruz now looks like a serious contender for the Republican nomination. The prospect of the Republican professional and organizational leadership, which almost uniformly detests Cruz personally and views him as ballot-box poison in a general election, being forced to gamely fall in line behind the Texas senator in a desperate attempt to block an even more unthinkable Trump nomination has simultaneously led to expressions of horror among pragmatic conservatives on the right and outright chortling among some observers on the left.
There are reasons to conclude, however, that the race will not easily evolve into a showdown between Trump and Cruz. One important factor is the role of the news media in interpreting the results of early state contests. Candidates deemed to have "exceeded expectations" in Iowa and New Hampshire tend to gain a burst of positive media coverage that inflates their popularity in the next states to vote, even if they do not win outright (examples include George McGovern in 1972, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Gary Hart in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1992, John Kerry in 2004, and Barack Obama in 2008). Would-be nominees benefit from looking as if their campaigns are gaining momentum, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if the media are giving them large helpings of positive coverage just as voters in subsequent states are tuning into the race and making up their minds.
It's fair to say that most members of the political media are uncomfortable, at best, with the prospect of a two-man race between Trump and Cruz. For the center-left mainstream press, both candidates are highly objectionable on grounds of policy, rhetoric, qualification, character, or all of the above. For much of the conservative media (Fox News in particular), as well as the Republican consultant class that influences Washington-based interpretations of Republican politics, a Trump-Cruz race is like being asked to select one of two passenger cabins on the Titanic. Even if they don't intentionally slant their coverage to attempt to influence the outcome, many journalists and commentators will be unconsciously open to any evidence that a third candidate remains viable and is gaining strength.
Let's say, for example, that Marco Rubio places third in Iowa, behind Cruz and Trump, with 18 percent of the vote. This was Howard Dean's showing in 2004, and was widely deemed such a disappointment that it proved fatal to Dean's campaign. In today's context, though, I think a large share of both the conservative and mainstream media would choose to interpret Rubio's performance in a very positive light. Stories about how Rubio was starting to catch on would start to appear. Voters in New Hampshire and other states would be told that Rubio was gaining traction. He and his campaign staff would suddenly receive a lot of Fox News bookings. Pundits would openly breathe sighs of relief that someone had appeared in time to save the Republican Party from itself. In such an environment, it's easy to see how Rubio could benefit more from coming in third than Cruz could from winning Iowa—especially if Cruz's margin of victory is smaller than the pre-caucus polls predict, thus failing to meet expectations.
None of this is guaranteed—Rubio has to put together an effective campaign to be in position to capitalize on any potential advantage, and the latest round of warnings about the health of his campaign organization are worth paying attention to. But the fact remains that a lot of people with direct access to voters' eyes and ears will be rooting against a Trump-Cruz race early next year, and will be quite likely to reward any other plausible nominees by advancing a generous interpretation of their electoral performance.