Inside the Iowa caucus poll numbers: Good news for Romney, bad for Gingrich

Days before the Iowa caucus, the latest CNN/Time/ORC poll has Romney ahead of Paul, with Gingrich falling way behind his earlier strong standing and now trailing Santorum.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney greets voters at Homer's Deli and Bakery in Clinton, Iowa Wednesday, December 28, ahead of the Iowa Caucuses on January 3, 2012.

With the Iowa caucuses just six days away, the latest poll is good news for Mitt Romney and bad news for Newt Gingrich. It also shows a bit of a surge for Rick Santorum, who now leads the second tier of candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination – particularly among evangelical Christians drawn to his clear and consistent positions on such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage.

A CNN/Time/ORC International Poll Wednesday finds these results among Republicans who say they’re likely to participate in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses: Romney 25 percent, Ron Paul 22 percent, Rick Santorum 16 percent, Gingrich 14 percent, Rick Perry 11 percent, Michele Bachmann 9 percent, and Jon Huntsman 1 percent.

The three-point spread between Romney and Paul is within the survey’s margin of error, so the two can legitimately claim to be front-runners.

Romney and Paul are each up five points among likely caucus goers from a CNN/Time/ORC poll conducted at the start of December, reports CNN.

Meanwhile, Santorum and Gingrich passed each other going in opposite directions: Former US Senator Santorum is up 11 percentage points, former House Speaker Gingrich plunged 19 points.

"Most of Santorum's gains have come among likely caucus participants who are born-again or evangelical, and he now tops the list among that crucial voting bloc, with support from 22 percent of born-agains compared to 18 percent for Paul, 16 percent for Romney, and 14 percent for Gingrich," said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.

Still, Wednesday’s poll does not cement any likely outcome next Tuesday.

Santorum and Paul may benefit from lower turnout, since they lead among likely voters who say that “nothing at all” would prevent them from attending the caucus, the poll finds. For his part, Romney appears to have an edge among those who attended the caucuses four years ago, and he does best among older Republicans in Iowa.

"Add in the fact that nearly half of Iowa respondents say they are undecided or could change their minds and it looks like Iowa is a wide open contest," says Mr. Holland.

On Tuesday, the Public Policy Polling organization reported similar results – with the exception of Santorum’s new surge. The PPP survey had Paul leading Romney by a slim four percentage points (24-20), with Gingrich in third place at 13 percent followed by Bachmann at 11 percent, Perry and Santorum at 10 percent, and Jon Huntsman at 4 percent.

While Paul beats Romney in the intensity of his support in this week’s PPP poll, the former Massachusetts governor enjoys a strong lead (34 to 12 percent) among older Republicans in Iowa. Conversely, Paul leads Romney 35 to 11 percent among likely caucus goers under age 45. Turnout thus could be key in next week’s results.

Like the CNN/Time/ORC International Poll Wednesday, the PPP poll a day earlier was bad news for Gingrich.

“He's gone from 27 percent to 22 percent to 14 percent to 13 percent over the course of our four Iowa tracking polls,” PPP reported. “His favorability numbers are pretty abysmal now at 37/54, and only 32 percent of likely voters think that he has strong principles to 45 percent who believe he does not.”

“Once the darling of Tea Party voters in the state, he's now slipped to third with that group behind Bachmann and Paul,” according to PPP. “There's not much reason to think Gingrich can return to his former strong standing in the state in the final week.”

Not surprisingly, the CNN/Time/ORC poll shows Romney to be the overwhelming front runner in New Hampshire, which holds its primary election a week after the Iowa caucuses.

Romney is supported by 44 percent of likely GOP primary voters there, up nine points from earlier this month. Paul is at 17 percent, with Gingrich at 16 percent (down ten points from early December). Huntsman, who's virtually ignored Iowa in putting his major effort into the Granite State, is at 9 percent, with Santorum at 4 percent, Bachmann at 3 percent, and Perry at 2 percent.

Santorum’s single-digit standing is explained by a major difference in the two states.

"Born-again voters are less prevalent in New Hampshire, and only a third of New Hampshire likely voters say that moral issues such as abortion or gay marriage will be extremely or very important to their vote,” says CNN polling director Holland. “In Iowa, more than half of likely caucus participants say that."

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