When Newt Gingrich rocketed to the front of the Republican presidential pack last month, I maintained that this was just another boomlet. Like Herman Cain before him, Gingrich was a vanity candidate whose stature would decline once the other candidates aimed their guns at his campaign. Gingrich is still ahead in national polls and in states like South Carolina and Florida, but in Iowa—a crucial state for his candidacy—he has seen a preciptious drop in support, thanks to two weeks of anti-Newt television ads from Ron Paul and Mitt Romney.
According to the latest survey from Public Policy Polling, Gingrich had only 14 percent support from Iowa Republicans. Congressman Ron Paul has nabbed the top spot with 23 percent support, and Romney is a close second with 20 percent support. This is a sudden drop; in last week’s poll, Gingrich was at 22 percent support. What’s more, Gingrich has seen a huge dip in his personal favorability rating, a measure of how voters feel about the candidate. Over the last two weeks, they’ve gone from +31 (62 positive/31 negative) to a current low of –1 (46 positive/47 negative). In all likelihood, Gingrich is in free fall, and his numbers will continue to decline as we approach the Iowa caucus.
It's unclear who will benefit from Gingrich’s decline. Ron Paul has a wide base of support that draws heavily from young people and people who identify as either Democrats or Independents. Insofar that Gingrich has any support from those people, it’s likely that they will jump to Paul. On the other hand, Romney is the outright second choice candidate for 30 percent of Gingrich voters, and if the former House Speaker continues to plummet, Romney might be the largest beneficiary.
Indeed, of all the candidates save Ron Paul, Romney seems best positioned to win Iowa, given the degree to which he has room for growth. For 19 percent of voters who are not firmly committed to someone else, he is their second choice. He scores highest in electability—25 percent say that he is most likely to beat Barack Obama—and he also leads Paul among voters who watched the most recent Republican debate, a sign that he gave a good performance as far as Iowa Republicans are concerned.
In other words, Romney has emerged as the frontrunner in Iowa, which should come as a surprise to anyone who holds the view that there is a well-defined “anti-Romney” vote in Iowa or elsewhere. If there was, then Gingrich’s decline should have been accompanied by the rise of another candidate, fueled by conservative voters (Rick Santorum would be the natural choice at this point). But that hasn’t happened. Instead, Gingrich voters have distributed themselves among Romney and the other candidates, which suggests that Iowa voters aren’t anti-Romney as much as they have weak preferences for a variety of candidates. They weren’t thrilled with Romney, but he was on the their list.
Of course, it almost goes without saying that if Romney wins the Iowa caucuses—after months of downplaying their significance—the Republican nomination contest is all but over. Romney will have proven his bona fides with conservative voters, and the momentum generated by wins in Iowa and New Hampshire would, in all likelihood, push him over the top in South Carolina and Florida. The previous year would amount to little more than sturm und drang, as Republicans went the path of least resistance, and chose the next guy in line.