Mitt Romney held a narrow lead over his Republican rivals as Rick Santorum enjoyed a late surge in the most closely followed state poll released just three days before Iowa’s first-in-the-nation party caucuses.
The Des Moines Register's final Iowa Poll before the caucuses, published Saturday night, shows the former Massachusetts governor with the support of 24 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers, up from 16 percent in the poll a month ago. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas had the backing of 22 percent, which makes the race between the top two a statistical dead heat.
Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania who has spent more time in Iowa than any of the other Republican candidates, is seeing the benefits of his labor. The poll shows him in third place at 15 percent, although the newspaper said he surged in the final two days the survey was being conducted.
“The second two days in the field were a whole new ballgame for Rick Santorum,” said J. Ann Selzer, president of West Des Moines-based Selzer & Co., which conducted the Register’s poll.
“If he continues on this trajectory, he can win. He benefits from Romney holding steady — not getting stronger with increased time in the state, and from a rather dramatic slide by Ron Paul,” Selzer said
The swing for Santorum was unusually strong, she said.
“I do not remember as dramatic a swing as these four days of polling reveal,” she said of her work with caucus polls.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led in the poll when it was last taken a month ago, registered at 12 percent. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was backed by 11 percent of likely caucus-goers. And Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota recorded support from 7 percent.
“If this is the Super Bowl, then we just saw the pre-game show,” Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said of the poll results. “But everyone knows the real action happens after kickoff.”
The Dec. 27-30 survey of 602 likely Republican caucus participants has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The poll also shows the fluidity that remains ahead of the Jan. 3 caucuses, with 41 percent of survey participants saying they could still change their minds.
If the final two days of polling are considered separately, the newspaper reported that Santorum rises to second place, with 21 percent, pushing Paul to third, at 18 percent. Romney remained steady at 24 percent. The margin of error for those two days alone jumps to 5.6 percentage points.
The final Iowa Poll before the caucuses has a strong track record, especially on the Republican side, for reflecting the likely winner.
In 2008, the last poll before the caucuses showed Mike Huckabee at 32 percent and Romney at 26 percent. The former Arkansas governor finished with 34 percent of the vote and Romney got 25 percent.
On the Democratic side in 2008, the poll showed then Sen. Barack Obama at 32 percent. He won with 37.6 percent of the vote, starting him on his way toward the presidency.
In 2000, the next most recent time the Iowa caucuses were contested on the Republican side, the final Iowa Poll before the voting showed then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush at 43 percent and he won with 41 percent. In 1996, the final poll had then-U.S. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas at 28 percent and he finished with 26 percent.
In 1992, there was no contest because President George H.W. Bush was running unopposed for re-election. And in 1988, the final Iowa Poll had Dole at 37 percent and he won the caucuses with 37 percent.
“We do our best to keep our own preconceptions about what will happen from infecting our data,” said Selzer, who also does polling for Bloomberg News. “Our methods would be instantly recognizable to legendary pollster George Gallup: just pull a representative spoonful from a well-stirred pot. Also, we worry a lot.”
On the Iowa campaign trail Saturday, Gingrich suggested that he might have to make some calibrations.
“This is the opening three minutes of the Super Bowl,” he told reporters in Atlantic, Iowa. “We’re learning a lot about what our opponents will do. They’re nastier and more dishonest than I expected. So we’ll have to make some adjustments.”
Gingrich, who showed an atypical emotional side Dec. 30 when talking about his mother, touched on his religious beliefs during a stop in Council Bluffs, telling those crowded into a restaurant that he prays before “virtually every speech and virtually every major decision.”
He also said he had felt sick in recent days.
“I don’t know if I picked up a slight flu or something,” he said. “But I had about 24 hours of being less than my normal ebullient self.”
Romney returned from New Hampshire to Iowa Saturday for rallies in Le Mars and Sioux City, working to maximize his vote in areas of western Iowa that backed him in 2008.
Campaigning in Le Mars, Romney warned of the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran. He also promised to veto the DREAM Act, if Congress passed the proposal. The bill, which would create a path to citizenship for young immigrants who finish high school and join the military or attend college, has repeatedly failed.
Romney has packed restaurants, parking lots, and coffee shops as he escalated his campaign in Iowa over the past week. Today, he’ll kick off a three-day bus tour — his second in less than a week — with stops planned in the western cities of Atlantic and Council Bluffs.
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