The Republican caucus in Iowa is headed for a photo finish, with the three leading contenders all within two points of each other. Ron Paul is at 20%, Mitt Romney at 19%, and Rick Santorum at 18%. Rounding out the field are Newt Gingrich at 14%, Rick Perry at 10%, Michele Bachmann at 8%, Jon Huntsman at 4%, and Buddy Roemer at 2%.
The momentum in the race is completely on Santorum's side. He's moved up 8 points since a PPP poll earlier in the week, while no one else has seen more than a one point gain in their support. Among voters who say they decided who to vote for in the last seven days he leads Romney 29-17 with Paul and Gingrich both at 13.
Santorum's net favorability of 60/30 makes him easily the most popular candidate in the field. No one else's favorability exceeds 52%. He may also have more room to grow in the final 48 hours of the campaign than the other front runners: 14% of voters say he's their second choice to 11% for Romney and only 8% for Paul. Santorum's taken the lead with two key groups of Republican voters: with Tea Partiers he's at 23% to 18% for Gingrich, 16% for Paul, 15% for Bachmann, and only 12% for Romney. And with Evangelicals he's at 24% to 16% for Gingrich, and 15% for Paul and Romney.
Other than Santorum's rise the other big story of this week is Paul's fall. He was at 24% earlier in the week but has dropped to 20%. That decline in support coincides with a precipitous drop in his favorability numbers. On our last poll he was at +13 (53/40), but that's gone down 21 points on the margin to -8 (43/51).
For all that Paul still has a very decent chance at winning on Tuesday- it just depends on whether his unusual coalition of young voters and non-Republicans really comes out to caucus. Among actual Republican voters Paul is tied for 3rd place with Gingrich at 17%, behind Romney's 21% and Santorum's 19%. But with independents and Democrats who plan to vote, which we peg at 24% of the electorate, Paul leads with 30% to just 14% each for Santorum and Romney.
There's a similar divide along age lines. With seniors Paul is in only 5th place at 11%, well behind Romney's 27%, Gingrich's 19%, Santorum's 17%, and Perry's 12%. But with voters under 45, who we think will make a larger share of the electorate than they did in 2008, Paul's at 30% to 19% for Santorum and 14% for Romney.
If these young voters and independents really turn out for Paul on Tuesday he has a decent chance. But if it's a more traditional turnout Romney's chances are looking really good. As mentioned above he's winning with regular Republicans. He's winning with seniors. Most of the time if you're winning with those groups in Iowa you're going to win overall. Paul's unique appeal could confound some of the usual patterns about who turns out for these contests. But if it doesn't Romney or Santorum could come out on top...it looks like it's going to be a photo finish.
Full results here