The Iowa Lead: Ron Paul Today, Who Tomorrow?

The speed with which the leader of the week keeps falling in the race for the GOP nomination is accelerating. As I predicted would happen last week, Ron Paul has now grabbed the lead in Iowa in two new surveys out from PPP and Insider Advantage, and the Newt Gingrich campaign in the state appears to be collapsing. Newt’s lead in Iowa polls was always shaky since he had not invested in the organizational effort required to win a caucus. Ferrying your supporters to the polls and finding articulate spokespeople to make the case for a candidate at the local caucus events are two keys to success.

Gingrich still has a small lead in the Gallup national tracking poll, now by two points over Mitt Romney, down from 15 two weeks ago. Newt has fallen to third or fourth place (behind Rick Perry) in the new Iowa surveys. Paul has also surged into second place ahead of Gingrich in New Hampshire in a new survey out  from PPP.

Gingrich’s numbers have declined faster in Iowa than they have nationally, since he has been targeted by negative ads from Ron Paul and to a lesser extent from groups supporting Mitt Romney in that state. Ads are not running in many other states at the moment. Romney did not jump into attack mode with Gingrich in the final Iowa debate in Sioux City as he had in earlier debates with Rick Perry, when Perry opened up a big lead. Michele Bachmann, looking for some way to break out of the pack, instead led the charge on Gingrich in the debate both on Freddie Mac and abortion. Romney’s decision not to go after Gingrich likely reflected the mounting evidence that Gingrich was already faltering in Iowa, and therefore he did not need to pile on in front of a national TV audience.

Gingrich is still polling well in the south and some western states. But if he finishes a poor third or fourth in Iowa, his numbers in other states will likely drop off quickly. Will Ron Paul be the beneficiary if Gingrich falls back into the pack after Iowa, or will it be Mitt Romney? Or will voters give a more serious look at Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, or, more improbably, Jon Huntsman?

Huntsman is banking on a strong showing in New Hampshire, where he is now in fourth place. But New Hampshire is a state with far more libertarians and far fewer social conservatives than Iowa, and it is an open primary, which will draw participation from independents since the GOP contest is the only competitive primary race on the ballot. It has to be discouraging for Huntsman that after all the days he has spent campaigning in New Hampshire, Ron Paul moved ahead of him there. If Ron Paul can sweep to a win in Iowa, a state that is not ideal for him except for the reward that comes with organization, he may find very fertile ground in New Hampshire with the added momentum that comes from winning Iowa. Paul’s numbers have been trending up nationally, now just over 10%.

So far, Paul has not been a factor in polling in the other early states: South Carolina, Nevada, or Florida. To the extent voters switch horses again after Iowa and move to Ron Paul, it will be a remarkable turn of events -- perhaps the least electable Republican temporarily in front of the pack.