As of this moment, if you look at the RealClearPolitics average for who will win in Iowa, Newt Gingrich leads with Herman Cain and then Mitt Romney close behind. But never was it more important to keep in mind that polls are a snapshot in time that are out of date almost before they can be tabulated and published.
Iowa Republicans are unanimous in their view that Cain is losing altitude there, as he is around the country. A plugged-in official in the state Republican Party predicts, “He’ll end up in single digits I think.” Craig Robinson of the Iowa Republican also sees Cain slipping. “He will be able to hold on to those who were already solidly behind him, but I still think he is going to bleed some support.” He attributes this to multiple factors. He tells me, “The sexual allegations, whether true or not, made people reevaluate him as a person. All the gaffes on critical issues made people realize that he’s not the substantive candidate they thought he was.”
The question remains as who benefits from that decline. Several candidates will have some appeal to these not-solid Cain supporters. Those who favor minimalist government will take a look at Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.).
If there is a dark horse Rick Santorum is it. He scored big at the Family Leader’s forum in Iowa yesterday. Robinson wrote: “Basically, on all the core issues that the audience cared most about, Santorum gave solid answers. Santorum provided the most powerful, and honest, moment of the debate when talking about his daughter Bella, who is a special needs child. Doctors did not give her much of a chance to live and Santorum tearfully admitted that he treated her differently because of that, so that it would not hurt as much if she died. It was a painful admission and showed a very human side to Santorum.”
Those who want the bold reformer may think Gingrich fits the bill. And though conservative media are loath to admit it, Romney ranks near the top of the “second choice” polls and will stress that if voters want someone who’s been successful in the private sector, he is the alternative to Cain.
Moreover, Romney is stepping up his efforts, activating what the New York Times calls his “stealth organization.” As the Times notes, “The escalation of his effort in Iowa, along with a more aggressive schedule in New Hampshire and an expanding presence in South Carolina, is the strongest indication yet that Mr. Romney is shifting from a defensive, make-no-mistakes crouch to an assertive offensive strategy. If he can take command in the three early-voting states, he could make the nominating battle a swift one.” But neither should the uptick in intensity be overstated; The Romney team has emphasized in multiple conversations with Right Turn over the last month that all along the plan has been to “play in Iowa, but not move all the chips to the center of the table,” as a person close to the campaign told me recently. Perhaps the most noteworthy fact to keep in mind is this: “Volunteers and a skeleton staff have been diligently reconnecting with the 29,949 people who supported Mr. Romney four years ago when he won 25 percent of the vote. . . . . Strategists say the same level of support could be enough for Mr. Romney to win because the social conservative vote is likely to split.”
It is safe to say that the electorate in Iowa is in complete flux right now. Voters aren’t yet locked into their final choice in the caucuses. That makes the debates, the inevitable gaffes and media scrutiny over the next few weeks critical. And this is also where organization comes in. Ron Paul, for example, may be slightly lower in the polls than others but have devoted followers who will show up on caucus night. Santorum’s legwork in Iowa and support from ministers, home-schoolers and social conservatives may also help him maximize his support. And Romney’s reawakened troops could be decisive.
Whatever the polls say today or tomorrow is not nearly as important as the last 30 days of the campaign. Whoever makes the best impression during that time frame and whoever has built an effective voter turnout operation will finish strongly. And the rest may see their chances for the nomination evaporate in Iowa.