DES MOINES (Iowa) • After leading poll after poll for months, businessman Donald Trump stumbled in the first one that really mattered.
At the Iowa caucus on Monday night, Texas Senator Ted Cruz defied all previous polls to beat Mr Trump 28 per cent to 24 per cent. Running just 1 percentage point behind Mr Trump's second place was Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who had trailed by double digits for much of the campaign.
Experts say the shock results had to do with both strong grassroots organisation by Mr Cruz and the likelihood that anti-Trump voters were spooked enough to turn up.
Iowa has been considered prime territory for Mr Cruz, who invested time and money to build up his operation on the ground and even visited all 99 counties in the state.
Seen as best positioned to appeal to the large Christian evangelical voter base, he mixes Christian scripture references into his stump speeches and has portrayed himself as a champion of the anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage camps.
At his final rally before the caucus, he drew a crowd so huge that dozens were squeezed out of the hall.
Among those who made it inside was Ms Donna Maurer, 75, who told The Straits Times that abortion was one of the key issues for her, saying: "I like where Mr Cruz stands on all the issues that are important to me."
Ultimately, it was people like Ms Maurer who proved more committed than Mr Trump's supporters.
Said Iowa political strategist Joe Shannahan of public affairs firm LS2group: "This is not the first time that the polls have got it wrong with Christian conservatives. If you look at the history of Iowa polls, they always seem to underestimate the candidate with the Christian conservative vote."
Political science professor Mack Shelley of Iowa State University said the higher-than-expected turnout of voters did not work in Mr Trump's favour.
"The common wisdom was that if there was a big turnout, it would benefit Trump, but Cruz had the advantage of a heavy turnout in the north-western corner of the state, which is heavily evangelical."
Mr Rubio's third-place showing also suggested that some of those who turned out to vote were pro-establishment folk trying to stop Mr Trump.
A barrage of negative advertising targeting Mr Trump emerged in the past week, including from a new group called Our Principles Political Action Committee.
But Trump supporters like farmer Floyd Kibbe, 49, saw the setback as a minor blip: "I'm very unhappy about this result but he can go to New Hampshire and win. This is a long race."
Jeremy Au Yong