Two meaningful red flags before we get to the poll results themselves: (1) These numbers come from PPP, a Democratic firm whose recent findings have smelled a little fishy. (2) As Ed Morrissey notes in some detail, the sample is highly suspect, with roughly one-third of those polled having sat out the 2008 cycle. With those caveats firmly in place, voila:
Newt Gingrich's campaign is rapidly imploding, and Ron Paul has now taken the lead in Iowa. He's at 23% to 20% for Mitt Romney, 14% for Gingrich, 10% each for Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry, 4% for Jon Huntsman, and 2% for Gary Johnson. Gingrich has now seen a big drop in his Iowa standing two weeks in a row. His share of the vote has gone from 27% to 22% to 14%. And there's been a large drop in his personal favorability numbers as well from +31 (62/31) to +12 (52/40) to now -1 (46/47). Negative ads over the last few weeks have really chipped away at Gingrich's image as being a strong conservative- now only 36% of voters believe that he has 'strong principles,' while 43% think he does not.
Paul's ascendancy is a sign that perhaps campaigns do matter at least a little, in a year where there has been a lot of discussion about whether they still do in Iowa. 22% of voters think he's run the best campaign in the state compared to only 8% for Gingrich and 5% for Romney. The only other candidate to hit double digits on that question is Bachmann at 19%. Paul also leads Romney 26-5 (with Gingrich at 13%) with the 22% of voters who say it's 'very important' that a candidate spends a lot of time in Iowa. Finally Paul leads Romney 29-19 among the 26% of likely voters who have seen one of the candidates in person.
Romney's vote share is up 4 points from a week ago to 20% from it previous 16% standing. His favorability numbers have improved a little bit as well from 48/44 to 49/40. One thing Romney really has going for him is more room for growth than Paul. Among voters who say they're not firmly committed to their current candidate choice, Romney is the second choice for 19% compared to 17% for Perry, 15% for Bachmann, and only 13% for Paul. It's particularly worth noting that among Gingrich- who seems more likely to keep falling than turn it around- voters, he's the second choice of 30% compared to only 11% for Paul.
The Washington Examiner's Tim Carney -- a Paul admirer -- predicts the GOP establishment will break out the heavy artillery against the Texas Congressman if he prevails in Iowa:
The Republican presidential primary has become a bit feisty, but it will get downright ugly if Ron Paul wins the Iowa caucuses. The principled, antiwar, Constitution-obeying, Fed-hating, libertarian Republican congressman from Texas stands firmly outside the bounds of permissible dissent as drawn by either the Republican establishment or the mainstream media. (Disclosure: Paul wrote the foreword to my 2009 book.) But in a crowded GOP field currently led by a collapsing Newt Gingrich and an uninspiring Mitt Romney, Paul could carry the Iowa caucuses, where supporter enthusiasm has so much value.
If Paul wins, how will the media and the GOP react? Much of the media will ignore him (expect headlines like "Romney Beats out Gingrich for Second Place in Iowa"). Some in the Republican establishment and the conservative media will panic. Others will calmly move to crush him, with the full cooperation of the liberal mainstream media.
Carney's probably right, and which doesn't bother me in the least. Ron Paul, for all of his attributes and many fans, is unfit to be the Republican Party's standard-bearer. Ron Paul has indulged 9/11 trutherism, shrugged off the urgency of preventing Iran from attaining nukes, published racially-charged materials in his personal newsletter, tolerated or embraced multiple conspiracy theories, asserted that the raid that killed Osama bin Laden was "not necessary," and has suggested that Palestinians in Gaza are prisoners in an Israeli "concentration camp." Ron Paul as a gadfly Congressman who challenges Beltway orthodoxies can be welcome and refreshing. Ron Paul as the Republican Party's presidential nominee is a harrowing prospect to ponder -- not that we'll have to ponder it in any serious way. Beyond Iowa, Paul's ceiling is low.
The trend in PPP's results that may have a more lasting impact on the broader race is the erosion of Newt Gingrich's support and overall favorability. As I reported from Iowa last week, Newtmentum seemed to be stalling. The Paul, Perry, and Romney camps have been hammering him over the airwaves for days, and a number of conservative media figures haven't minced words in questioning Newt's presidential mettle. Part of what makes Iowa a ripe target for a guy like Ron Paul is that the caucus system rewards candidates who command loyal support and strong grassroots organization. Does Newt enjoy either of those commodities in the Hawkeye State? The loyalty question is a tough call, but running on-the-ground logistics hasn't been the Gingrich campaign's strong suit. They've experienced ballot-qualification snafus in Missouri, Ohio, and are reportedly "scrambling" in Virginia. I'd be surprised if Newt's Iowa support completely collapses before January 3rd, but his rivals are hoping they can slowly and steadily peel away of enough of his supporters to give their own campaigns a needed boost.
Parting thought: Was Chris Wallace right?
UPDATE - A second poll (Insider Advantage) shows Paul at the top of the pile, and detects the Perry momentum I described last week. The IA survey's key numbers: Paul 24, Romney 18, Perry 16, Newt 13, Bachmann 10.
UPDATE II - CNN's new national poll has Newt and Romney tied at 28 percent, with Ron Paul in third place at 14 percent.