Race in Iowa Remains in Flux as Santorum Moves into Third Place

By Dave Andrusko

It probably goes without saying, but it’s Thursday afternoon and by the weekend what pundits think they know about will happen in next Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses might be as outdated as what they were convinced they knew just three weeks ago.

Seemingly just yesterday former Speaker Newt Gingrich had whooshed to the top in Iowa. Now, the leader appears to be former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney with former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum clearly gaining momentum. What perhaps matters most, however, is that whatever poll you read, there are a great many Republicans who had not made up their minds between Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, Rep. Ron Paul, Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and former Gov. Jon Huntsman–and even some of those who say they have seem open to a last-minute change (or two).

Let’s look at recent results.

Literally as I was writing this, Rasmussen released its latest poll of 750 likely caucus-goers in Iowa.

”The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of likely GOP caucus participants finds Romney with 23% support to Paul’s 22%. Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum has moved into third place with 16%, his best showing to date, closely followed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry who earn 13% of the vote each. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann picks up five percent (5%) support, while former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman gets three percent (3%) of the vote, marking no movement on either candidate’s part over the past week. One percent (1%) like some other candidate, and six percent (6%) are undecided.”

That is a 6% jump for Santorum, who has visited all of Iowa’s 99 counties, in one week. Unlike yesterday’s CNN/Time/ORC poll, Rasmussen included Independents in its sampling.

Wednesday’s CNN/Time/ORC poll (conducted between December 21-27) received a lot of attention, some of it for under-estimating Rep. Paul (because he is doing well among Democrats and Independents who could participate next Tuesday). Romney is atop the field with 25% (a 5 point gain); Paul is second with 22% (also a 5 point gain from earlier this month); Santorum has vaulted to third with 16% (up 11 points in three weeks); Gingrich has fallen to 14% (down from 33% less than a month ago). Next comes Perry with 11% and Bachmann with 9%.

The National Journal addressed a different dimension: anticipated success against pro-abortion President Barack Obama.

“While just 18 percent of likely caucus-goers say Romney is the candidate they are most likely to agree with on the issues that matter most, a wide plurality believe he is the most electable candidate against President Obama. Forty-one percent believe he has the best chance of beating Obama in the general election, including 38 percent of tea party supporters and 31 percent of evangelicals.”

Writing on a TIME magazine blog, Adam Sorensen addresses Romney’s strong standing in New Hampshire:

“The race in New Hampshire, meanwhile, appears to have settled. Gingrich’s boomlet has subsided in the Granite State as well with his support there falling 10 points to 16% in the last month. But rather than splintering, almost all of those voters have swung to Romney, who maintains a commanding lead there with 44% backing, up nine points over the same time period. The rest of the field has remained static. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who gained some traction in recent months, failed to catch fire, merely edging up one point to 9%. And even as Paul has moved to the front in Iowa, his New Hampshire support remains at 17%, second to Romney and now ahead of Gingrich, but still far off the lead.

But again illustrating the volatility of the race, Sorensen adds,

“Even as the primaries approach, Republican voters remain flexible in whom they favor. Slim majorities in Iowa (54%) and New Hampshire (51%) now say they’ll definitely support their current pick, a new development since early December, but more than 40% in each state still say they may change their minds.”

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