Are We Heading for a Photo Finish in Iowa?

Most of the recent polls have shown Ron Paul fading fast in Iowa, which is why this Public Policy Polling survey showing him, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in a statistical dead-heat has been greeted with some surprise today:

The Republican caucus in Iowa is headed for a photo finish, with the three leading contenders all within two points of each other. Ron Paul is at 20 percent, Mitt Romney at 19 percent, and Rick Santorum at 18 percent. Rounding out the field are Newt Gingrich at 14 percent, Rick Perry at 10 percent, Michele Bachmann at 8 percent, Jon Huntsman at 4 percent, and Buddy Roemer at 2 percent.

The poll still shows Paul dropping – down 4 percent since earlier in the week – and his favorability numbers have fallen 21 points. But is it possible that his downward momentum is coming late enough that he can still eke out a win in Iowa?

At HotAir, Ed Morrissey is dubious, and notes the strange makeup of PPP’s “like caucus-goer” demographic:

More to the point, though, only half of the “1,340 likely Republican caucus voters” surveyed by PPP caucused with Republicans in 2008.  Sixteen percent caucused with Democrats in that cycle, and over a third (34 percent) didn’t caucus with either party in 2008.  Not shockingly, Paul wins 23 percent of those who didn’t caucus at all in 2008, and 28 percent among those who caucused with the Democrats.

Obviously, that composition favors Paul, who’s popular with an unusual coalition of young, Democratic-leaning voters in Iowa. But the question has always been whether he would be able to get this eclectic group out to the polls. That’s why Paul’s modest drop in support in the PPP poll may not be as worrying for him as his massive drop in favorability. It appears that few, if any, voters will be open to supporting him if they haven’t decided to already.

Santorum, in contrast, is the candidate who’s most poised to make gains, according to PPP. And the opposition research that’s just started trickling out on him is probably coming too late to make a difference:

Santorum’s net favorability of 60/30 makes him easily the most popular candidate in the field. No one else’s favorability exceeds 52 percent. He may also have more room to grow in the final 48 hours of the campaign than the other front runners: 14 percent of voters say he’s their second choice to 11 percent for Romney and only 8 percent for Paul.

Unlike Santorum and Paul, Romney’s support is holding steady, and his campaign is clearly unfazed by the shuffling momentum of his two closest competitors. “If we win, it’s fantastic. If Santorum wins and we are second, it’s good. If Paul wins and we are second, it’s great. Any of the likely outcomes is positive for us,” one top Romney advisor told Mike Allen. Out of the top three, Romney is the only candidate with a clear path to the nomination, which is probably why he’s taken an increasingly confident attitude heading into the caucuses.