Pick your favorite poll. Newt Gingrich is up by one point. Gingrich is up by 14. Or maybe it’s 10. Listen to your favorite guru. One tells me that Gingrich’s lead is “harder than anyone thinks.” Another says that Gingrich’s lead is “absolutely” soft, though he cautions, “I don’t expect Gingrich to suddenly drop in the polls, but I think all of the ads attacking him will have an effect.” Some think the dark horse is Rick Santorum. (“His endorsements are impressive and should not go overlooked. Pastor Carry Gordon and Pastor Terry Amann both have a lot of sway.”) Others are convinced that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is making her move. Still others are convinced that Gov. Rick Perry’s rise “is for real.”
In other words, the race is in flux and it is virtually impossible to peg who will finish in the top spots on caucus night. Moreover, polling will get dicey during the holidays, so a late move by one of the contenders may not be evident.
Despite the fluidity of the race several things are certain. First, Gingrich, due to his own self-puffery and pump in the polls, has set a high bar for himself. The price of being the front-runner (or the guy who tells us he will be the nominee) is that a loss or skin-of-the-teeth win is viewed as a setback. Second, there is plenty of evidence that the attacks on Gingrich are having an effect, lowering his favorability and giving ammunition to other candidates claiming to be the consistent conservative. Third, support for Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) is remarkably steady across many polls. Considering his devoted followers are more likely t o show up than casual supporters of other candidates, his totals on caucus night may be surprisingly high. It is entirely possible for him to win, thereby throwing the race into even more chaos. And finally, historically Iowa doesn’t pick the presidential nominee. It serves a useful function in eliminating candidates, but we never had President Mike Huckabee (the Iowa winner in 2008) or President Bob Dole (the 1988 and 1996 winner). But in 2012, candidates who finish poorly might not want to drop out. In a few weeks or months they might be on top. It’s that kind of race.