With two more polls out today showing Rick Santorum moving up in Iowa, I think I can go a little farther in terms of where I think this thing may be heading. Most of the punditry is talking about the Santorum surge in terms of a strong third-place finish, or a surprising move into the top tier. Given Santorum’s dismal polling up to this point, that in itself is enough for breathless wall-to-wall coverage – but I don’t think they’re taking it far enough. I will:
Santorum could very easily win Iowa, possibly by a big margin.
Here’s why I say that. Santorum is in third in all of the polls, but he is the only candidate moving up, and he’s going up steeply. Two polls have him at 16% and a third puts him at 13%. Romney’s numbers are consistent but flat in the low 20s, while Ron Paul’s numbers seem to be peaking and possibly dropping off (Insider Advantage’s numbers show Paul dropping 7% in the last ten days). Either way, neither Romney nor Paul seem capable of cracking 25% in any poll. Furthermore, almost all of the reports I’ve read indicate that a high number of voters say that they could change their mind, so the situation remains fluid. With the media going nuts over Santorum, conservative undecideds are likely to break heavily in his favor, and soft supporters of Perry, Bachmann, and Gingrich are likely to shift to Santorum on caucus night. With this dogpile effect, Santorum could quickly consolidate the same type of bubble previously enjoyed by Bachmann, Perry, Cain and Gingrich. This floating block of ”wave voters” seems to constitute between 25% and 30% of the Iowa electorate, as all of the previous wave-riders peaked in that range in the RealClearPolitics Iowa average (Bachmann’s top score was 27%, Perry hit 25%, Cain just over 30%, and Gingrich 31%). All four waves were driven by exact same voters, and when one bubble deflated, the voters moved en masse to whoever was the “new conservative not-Romney”. Those same voters are now driving Santorum, they are coalescing quickly, and the media is helping. With less than a week to go, the only question is whether the bubble has enough time to fully inflate before caucus day. If it does, Santorum will finish with between 27% and 35% of the vote – at least 3 points clear of the others and possibly winning by as much as 10%.
Now, I’m not going to guarantee a Santorum win, as there are still a lot of variables. Anything could happen, and the bubble could easily pop. It’s also possible that Santorum’s relative lack of charisma will keep his bubble smaller. However, as things stand right now, I would put my money on Santorum to win Iowa. That may change tomorrow, and whether that translates into a shot at the nomination is a whole different question, but that’s the state of play.