Trying to figure out who is going to win the Iowa caucuses is like predicting the outcome of a horse race by taking a photo with a disposable camera of the competitors in the backstretch. What you get is blurry at best and irrelevant by the time you look at the snapshot. All you can say for sure is who seems to be flagging and who is gaining steam. But not much more.

With regard to Newt Gingrich and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), we can discern two entrants going in opposite directions. With our imperfect lens we see Gingrich falling back closer to the pack. The Public Policy Polling survey puts him in third place with 14 percent. Even if he is in second place or is at 20 percent, for example, it’s apparent he’s worse off than he was a couple of weeks ago. Private polling for other campaigns and neutral Republican operatives on the ground see a similar decline in Gingrich’s support, according to those I have spoken with in recent days.

Craig Robinson of the Iowa Republican tells me, “There is no doubt that Gingrich is trending downward as the caucuses approach. The attacks that have been used against him have been effective. With no more debates scheduled between now and the caucuses and no real organization on the ground here in Iowa, it’s difficult to see anything that might help him break his fall in the polls.” He faults Gingrich for “laziness”; that is, his running to national news studios instead of bonding with voters.

Meanwhile, Gingrich is being hounded by Bachmann to give up the money he got from Freddie Mac: “I call on former speaker Newt Gingrich to give that money back to the American people. This was during the time of the economic meltdown. While the rest of the country was dealing with the economic meltdown, he was pocketing $1.6 million.”

Conservative pundit Mark Steyn prefers to mock Gingrich for comparing himself to Winston Churchill:

Like Churchill resigning as first lord of the Admiralty after the debacle of Gallipoli, Gingrich resigned as Speaker after the humiliation of the 1998 midterms. Like Churchill spending years in the political wilderness, Gingrich spent years in the wilderness of K Street. Like Gingrich demanding that Barney Frank and Chris Dodd be sent to jail for political profiteering, Churchill favored summary execution for the Axis leaders. Like Gingrich getting $1.8 million for services as a “historian” to Freddie Mac, Churchill was on a seven-figure retainer from Goebbels. No, hang on. . . . Like Newt on Air Force One, Winston was made to exit King George VI’s Gold State Coach from the rear door. No, that’s not it. . . .

In short, Gingrich is running into a stiff headwind.

And while he was the victor in a Tea Party straw poll, his unimpressive lead over Bachmann (3 percent) shows that, among the group he must win convincingly, he has major competition. The results (Gingrich 31 percent, Michele Bachmann 28 percent, Mitt Romney 20 percent, Rick Santorum 16 percent, Ron Paul 3 percent, Rick Perry 2 percent, Jon Huntsman 0.3 percent), as Politico suggests, “are not bad for Romney, and the Perry results jump out as especially bleak.”

As a political operative for a rival campaign put it, “the more voters learn, the less they like” Gingrich. Whether he has enough stamina to stumble across the finish line ahead of the pack remains to be seen.

In contrast to Gingrich, it seems that Bachmann is finally moving up in the pack. Her straw-poll result and her standing in the PPP poll (10 percent, just four points back from Gingrich) suggest that she’s got a second wind. In large part, her very pointed attacks on Gingrich have given her more visibility than other second-tier candidates (Perry and Santorum) have received. And her 99-county tour is demonstrating some star quality. For the conservative base that Gingrich has turned off and Ron Paul scares, she may be a popular alternative.

And holding steady on Gingrich’s heels (or maybe ahead of him) are Romney and Paul. Neither seems to have the kick to pass Gingrich in convincing fashion, but both are positioned at the front of the pack to take advantage if Gingrich runs out of steam.

Contrary to conventional wisdom and recent history, it’s possible Iowa may do little to thin the herd of candidates. Candidates who finish back in the pack but can boost themselves into double figures have little to lose by hanging around in a contest as volatile as this one. Even if Gingrich falls to second or third, he certainly won’t throw in the towel. And if Paul, anathema to many in the party, wins, there is good reason for the entire field to throw up its collective hands, declare the contest irrelevant and consider New Hampshire to be the first meaningful contest.