A new poll out from PPP gives some indications about where things are headed in the home stretch. Given that it's only one poll, and that the polling was done between the first and second nights after Christmas--and that it pours some water on my Gingrich uptick theory--I'm not going to interpret the results too literally. But they do offer some hints about what's going on.
First, as on the Democratic side in 2008, it looks like turnout is going to tell us who'll win the caucuses well before the actual votes are tallied, at least if present trends continue. According to PPP's write-up:
Paul's strength in Iowa continues to depend on a coalition of voters that's pretty unusual for a Republican in the state. Romney leads 22-20 with those who are actually Republicans, while Paul has a 39-12 advantage with the 24% who are either independents or Democrats. GOP caucus voters tend to skew old, and Romney has a 34-12 advantage with seniors. But Paul's candidacy looks like it's going to attract an unusual number of younger voters to the caucus this year, and with those under 45 he has a 35-11 advantage on Romney. The independent/young voter combo worked for Barack Obama in securing an unexpectedly large victory on the Democratic side in 2008 and it may be Paul's winning equation in 2012.
If turnout is high, that probably means Paul got those young and independent voters to show up, which is trouble for Romney. If it looks like a more traditional turnout, Romney may pull it off.
Second, as Jonathan Cohn and I were discussing on Twitter yesterday (follow us on @citizencohn and @noamscheiber to catch these exciting volleys in the future), if one member of the Bachmann/Perry/Santorum trio can consolidate the conservative vote, that person has a chance to finish near the top in Iowa. Together the three candidates consistently pull down about one-third of likely caucus-goers, depending on the poll. If one gets a bit of separation from the other two, voters may start to rally around them as the conservative with a shot, which could become self-fulfilling. (Nate Silver lays out this argument today in much more nuance and detail.)
Yesterday, Cohn and I agreed that Perry was the most likely beneficiary of this dynamic. But the PPP poll suggests it may be Santorum instead:
Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum continue to all be clustered right around 10%. Santorum actually has the best favorability numbers of any of the candidates at +27 (56/29). He's also the most frequent second choice of voters at 14%. Whether he can translate any of this into a top 3 finish remains to be seen, but he's someone who would seem to have the potential to grow his support in the final week.
Also, if one of the three does break out, this second dynamic could muddy the first. That is, excitement among conservatives could increase turnout, but in a way that doesn't benefit Ron Paul, who relies on the young and independent. So I guess the bottom line is, if no one emerges from the Bachmann three, high turnout is good for Ron Paul. If one of the three does surge, then high turnout may mean we have a new-new contender (or in the case of Bachmann or Perry, a new-old contender).
Update: This CNN/Time poll puts Santorum in third place in Iowa, at 16 percent. Could be the daylight he needs to make himself into the consensus conservative candidate.