My view that Newt Gingrich’s performance in last Thursday’s debate would send him back to the pack was very much in the minority the day after the candidates clashed in Sioux City, Iowa. But a pair of new polls published this weekend shows the former Speaker’s large lead in the Hawkeye state is evaporating. For much of November and December, opinion surveys showed Republican voters were ignoring Gingrich’s troubling past and lack of electability. However, after getting pounded on his Freddie Mac fees and another week of heightened scrutiny about his inconsistent record, Gallup’s Daily Tracking Poll in Iowa showed Gingrich’s lead over Mitt Romney to have declined to four points (28 to 24 percent) from 15 points only two weeks ago (37 to 22 percent). Even more shocking, a Public Policy Poll now shows Gingrich dropping to third in Iowa with only 14 percent of the vote, while Ron Paul leads with 23 percent and Romney is listed as a close second with 20 percent.
The discrepancy between Paul’s showing in the two polls illustrates both the volatility and the difficulty of predicting this race. It is hard to square the fact that Gallup shows the extremist libertarian at only 10 percent while PPP has him in the lead. Nevertheless, both surveys agree on one thing. Gingrich’s surge is not only over; it may be about to be reversed. He is now rapidly losing ground in Iowa, and with no other debates scheduled before the Jan. 3 caucus and his campaign lacking organizational strength on the ground, it isn’t likely he’ll be able to recover. So no matter how well Paul does, the popping of Gingrich’s bubble is good news for Romney. Any outcome other than a Gingrich win in Iowa will set him up for a very good January.
Even if Ron Paul is able to parlay his strong ground game into a surprising victory in Iowa, there is no chance his out-of-the-mainstream views on foreign policy will enable him to win elsewhere. Any boost an extremist such as Paul gets in Iowa will only make Romney’s nomination look like a better idea to most conservatives who value beating President Obama over ideological purity.
Though Romney has had trouble connecting with grassroots Republicans, the notion that Gingrich could overcome his enormous negatives and cruise to the nomination may have been as much an illusion as the bubbles that briefly had Rick Perry and Herman Cain leading in the GOP contest. Even more to the point, a Gingrich collapse in Iowa will send his poll numbers in other crucial early primary states where he has been leading (such as South Carolina and Florida) tumbling as well. That may give Romney a chance to follow up his likely win in New Hampshire with victories in the south that could give him a stranglehold on the nomination.
The crowded field is also still an advantage for Romney. None of the second-tier candidates such as Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum or Rick Perry have shown any ability to break out so far. But with all of them hanging on to approximately ten percent of likely caucus-goers, the split on the right has prevented Gingrich from consolidating the lead he once held and gives Romney a chance at winning in Iowa with only a fifth of the electorate behind him. With PPP showing the former Massachusetts governor with far more room for growth than Paul — who appears to be maxing out the libertarian/youth/anti-war vote — that gives Romney a very decent chance at an outright plurality in Iowa.