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Romney, Paul on Top, But Read Iowa Caucus Polls With Caution

An Analysis By Scott Rasmussen

Polling for a caucus is much more difficult than polling for a primary or general election. For one thing, a much smaller number of people show up, and precisely projecting turnout is a huge challenge. For another, those who participate will be part of a process lasting for hours including final pleas and chatter from supporters of various candidates. Many potential caucus-goers have narrowed their choices but still could still change their minds at the last minute.

The latest Rasmussen Reports Iowa poll  and five of the last six public polls released show former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney ahead of the Republican pack. That makes him a very slight favorite, but his lead over Texas Congressman Ron Paul in each poll is very narrow. Additionally, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum’s campaign has been surging, making him a last minute top-tier candidate. 

Still, it’s worth noting that the consistency of polling showing Romney on top is stronger than anything from four years ago. In 2008, four of the last seven polls showed former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee leading, while three showed Romney ahead. Huckabee won handily. For the Democrats that year, four polls showed Hillary Clinton ahead, two put Barack Obama in the lead, one had John Edwards on top, and one showed a tie between Edwards and Obama with Clinton a point behind. Obama won.

Yet while polling can’t precisely project the winner of the Iowa caucus in a divided field, it can give us a good sense of trends and a ballpark picture of what to expect. Looking at all the available data, Romney should certainly be expected to finish in one of the top two slots. That’s partly because of the latest poll results but also due to the consistent level of support he has enjoyed for months. While other candidates have bounced up and down wildly at times, the Romney support has been steady, and he has always remained near the top. 

Romney is more and more being seen as the strongest general election candidate. Three weeks ago, he and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich were tied on this question. Now, 37% of Likely Iowa Caucus-goers see Romney as the strongest, while only 19% say the same of Gingrich.

Polling suggests that Paul and Santorum should both be expected to finish in the top three. For Paul, his prospects will be stronger if non-Republicans make up a larger share of caucus-goers. Those non-Republicans are a key part of his base as he leads Romney by 21 points among that group. Possibly putting a cap on Paul’s support have been recent discussions of his newsletters and highlights of his less appealing policy prescriptions, particularly in the area of foreign affairs. Additionally, caucus-goers see Paul as the weakest potential nominee against Obama, tied with Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

Santorum’s surge has happened so fast that it’s impossible to project when it will crest. He is blessed by the fact that he has not yet been the front-runner which has saved him from attacks like those endured by Gingrich, Texas Governor Rick Perry and others. His personal favorability ratings are the highest of any candidate in the field right now. But there are reports from Iowa that the Santorum surge may have peaked. If Santorum does well in Iowa, and in particular if he pulls off an upset victory, voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina can expect to hear a lot of less flattering things about his record in the coming week. In both 2004 and 2008, while polling for the Iowa caucus wasn’t precise, the eventual winner led in at least one pre-caucus poll. Santorum has not.

For Gingrich and Perry, the polling data suggests they will most likely be fighting it out for fourth and fifth place. Gingrich probably has more visceral support, but Perry is believed to have the better organization. But given all the factors that make polling for caucuses so difficult, a third place finish can’t be ruled out. If either of these men finishes ahead of Santorum, they would likely become the prime challenger to Romney for the GOP nomination.

Bachmann and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman are expected to finish very poorly, in the low single digits.

By tomorrow, once the results are known, talk will quickly turn to which candidates might drop out and what to expect in the New Hampshire primary on January 10. But for today, all eyes in the political world are on Iowa.

See Other Political Commentaries.

See Other Commentaries by Scott Rasmussen

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