DES MOINES, IOWA —
Senator Ted Cruz defeated billionaire Donald Trump in Iowa’s Republican caucus Monday, while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders ended the Democratic contest in a virtual tie.
Cruz, a conservative lawmaker from Texas, finished with 28 percent of the vote. That is 3½ percentage points better than Trump, the national front-runner.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio finished with 23 percent, making him easily the leader among establishment Republican candidates.
On the Democratic side, the race appeared too close to call. With 94 percent of votes counted, Clinton led Sanders by just two-tenths of a percentage point.
The results provided the first concrete look at voter sentiment, after a year of fierce campaigning and endless speculation.
After the results were announced, each candidate tried to spin the outcome in their favor.
Cruz, who came away as the night’s clear winner, sounded upbeat as he gave a victory speech in Des Moines.
“Let me first of all say, to God be the glory,” Cruz said to loud cheers. “Tonight, is a victory for the grassroots. Tonight is a victory for courageous conservatives across Iowa and all across this great nation.”
Trump appeared more subdued, even while assuring his supporters he was “so happy with the way everything worked out.”
“We will go on to get the Republican nomination. And we will go on to easily beat Hillary or Bernie or whoever the hell they throw up there,” Trump said.
Rubio had his own reason to be optimistic after a better than expected third-place finish.
“For months they told us we had no chance,” Rubio said. “But tonight here in Iowa, the people of this great state have sent a great message.”
In her post-caucus speech, Clinton seemed to acknowledge there is a tough fight ahead with Sanders, the self-proclaimed democratic socialist who has outflanked her to the left on many issues.
“It is rare that we have the opportunity we do now to have a real contest of ideas,” she said. “I am excited about getting into a debate with Senator Sanders about the best way forward for America.”
For his part, Sanders sounded triumphant, as he pumped his fist in the air at a rally in the capital.
“Nine months ago, we came to this beautiful state, we had no political organization, we had no money, we had no name recognition,” he said.
WATCH: From the Iowa caucuses to New Hampshire's primary
“We were taking on the most powerful political organization in the United States of America. And tonight, while the results are still not known, it looks like we are in a virtual tie,” Sanders added.
Iowa’s first-in-the-nation vote is seen as a crucial way for candidates to gain momentum in the U.S. primary election, which will continue to be held state-by-state until mid-June.
The goal is for candidates to win their party’s nomination by securing a majority of delegates, or party representatives, which are handed out based on the result of each state vote.
In Iowa, those delegates are rewarded proportionally rather than on a winner-takes-all basis.
And while Iowa rewards a relatively small number of delegates, the outcome is expected to create crucial narratives that will have a major impact on the race.
“Rubio did much better than expectations,” said Gayle Alberda, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines. “While he may not have won first place, he will definitely be a viable candidate going into New Hampshire.”
With Trump not meeting expectations by coming in first place, he could be in for a devastating blow in the upcoming states, Alberda says.
“What it tells us is that maybe voters aren’t necessarily wanting the type of changing he is bringing to the table,” she said.
Next up: New Hampshire
The primary race now heads to New Hampshire, which will vote on February 9. That election will take place with a reduced field of presidential hopefuls.
As the Iowa results were released, GOP contender Mike Huckabee announced on Twitter he is suspending his campaign. Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is also dropping his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Kathryn Gypson and Kane Farabaugh contributed to this report.