The Iowa Caucus: What The Polls Tell Us

The Iowa Caucus -- the first political contest in what will ultimately be the nomination of the Republican candidate for president -- has arrived. The polls are showing a close race, a bunching up of the candidates as they come down to the final vote. Is there any way to tell who will win?

In short, the last few local polls out of Iowa indicate that the Republican electorate are still basically undecided about who it is they would like to see nominated to run against President Obama in 2012. According to the most recent polls (as tracked by Real Clear Politics) going into the Iowa Caucus, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul are the leaders (and within the margin of error) and Rick Santorum is making a surprisingly strong bid as a third-place candidate. So what does it all mean? Who will win in Iowa?

An NBC News/Marist Poll released on Dec. 30 showed Romney with a two-point lead, 23 percent to 21 percent over Paul. The margin of error was +/- 4.7 percent. Rick Santorum placed third with 15 percent of Republican voters' support.

Rasmussen Reports revealed their latest poll findings on Dec. 29. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney enjoyed a one point lead, 23 percent to 22 percent over Congressman Paul of Texas. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum polled 16 percent of the Iowa voters' support. The margin of error was +/- 4 percent.

The Des Moines Register released a poll that concluded on Dec. 30 that also showed Romney with a two-point lead, 24 percent to 22 percent, over Paul. Santorum was at 15 percent in that poll as well. The margin of error: +/- 4 percent.

A Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey released on New Yea's Day indicated that the Iowa Caucus race was getting tighter as Jan. 3 approached. Unlike the previous polls, however, Romney placed second by a point. Rep. Paul held the lead with 20 percent of the vote. But Santorum was in the mix, landing 18 percent of the vote. With the margin of error at +/- 2.7 percent, the PPP poll indicated a virtual three-way tie for the lead.

A fifth poll from Insider Advantage released on Jan. 1 also indicated a closer race. It, too, showed Santorum with 18 percent of the vote (the margin of error was undetermined). Romney held the lead with 23 percent of the vote. Paul was again second with 22 percent.

But what does it mean? The polls seem to still be indicative of the Republican Party's electorate to fully embrace one candidate over another, something that will undoubtedly change as more primaries and caucuses are held and the seven major candidates lose a few of their number via attrition (poor showings, lack of finances, etc.). The polls also continue to show Mitt Romney as a frontrunner with solid two-digit (usually in the 20-25 percent range) support from Republicans. However, the former Massachusetts governor has been unable to rise above that level since his campaign began.

As for Congressman Paul, who has seen his own poll numbers increase of late, the numbers are reflective of both his core constituency (which has kept him around 10 percent in polling for months) and part of the Republican base that simply does not want to support Mitt Romney.

The surprising surge by Santorum, a candidate that has been stuck in the low single digits since campaigning began in the summer, is mostly anti-Romney evangelical disappointment. Every strong candidate that has been backed by the evangelicals (Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich) have fallen by the wayside via media vetting and oppositional sniping. Although the least likely of the candidates to succeed at the beginning of the campaign for the 2012 nomination, Santorum, mostly due to his evangelical leanings and a strong conservative record, has become a force to be reckoned with in the run-up to the caucuses in Iowa.

But who will win the Iowa Caucus, a contest made up of hundreds of caucuses throughout the state? It is difficult to tell. But there is one sobering note to be added to all the analyses of the polls, momentum, and ultimate electability: Iowa has chosen only one winning candidate since 1980. What the Iowa Caucus will assuredly do is begin the attrition process for the weaker candidates and, by the time the South Carolina and Florida primaries are held later in January, collapse the GOP field down to only a few. So in the long run, the Iowa Caucus might only matter insofar as giving legs to candidates that have fallen off the pace or who might be showing signs of gaining momentum. But when the day is over, the Caucus will leave the Republican electorate still unsure of who they want as a candidate and only sure of having put one of the fifty nominating contests behind them.

(photo credit: Dezidor, Wikimedia Commons)