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Gingrich Momentum Slows, Polls Suggest

A lot of bad habits when analyzing general election polls can be good ones when it comes to primaries and caucuses. In particular, making inferences about a trend based on just a couple of polls will often lead you astray in the general election. As I wrote about on Tuesday, however, this is probably the lesser of evils when it comes to primaries. Voter preferences can change fast in primaries, and although the polls may or may not track them as accurately as we might like, in the long run you will benefit from being aggressive about trying to discern who has the momentum.

The polling data I’ve seen over the past two or three days suggests that Newt Gingrich’s momentum has stopped — and has probably reversed.

The most troubling numbers for Mr. Gingrich are in Iowa, where three recent polls show that his lead — which had been in double-digits just a week ago — has all but evaporated. One poll, in fact, from Rasmussen Reports, now shows him trailing Mitt Romney. The other two do not show gains for Mr. Romney, but do have Mr. Gingrich essentially tied with Ron Paul.

Right now, our forecast model projects Mr. Gingrich to receive 23 percent of the vote in Iowa, as compared with 20 percent each for Mr. Paul and Mr. Romney. That is not much better than a three-way tie for Mr. Gingrich considering the uncertainty intrinsic to primary polling. In our model, it translates into a 38 percent chance of him winning in Iowa, which is down from 50 percent just 48 hours ago and from what would have been as high as 70 percent if we had run the numbers last week. (The model gives a 27 percent chance to Mr. Paul of winning Iowa and a 26 percent chance to Mr. Romney, with Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann also retaining plausible chances.)

There is also some mixed news for Mr. Gingrich in New Hampshire, where a new Suffolk University poll gives Mr. Romney an 18-point lead, putting him at 38 percent to Mr. Gingrich’s 20 percent. Although Mr. Romney’s lead is down from a Suffolk poll conducted in mid-November, it is a more comfortable margin than other recent polls of the state have given him. Mr. Romney is by no means home free in New Hampshire: several polls suggest that Jon M. Huntsman Jr. has positive momentum, while Mr. Paul’s numbers have been highly erratic from survey to survey. And, the New Hampshire results will be affected by what happens in Iowa. Still, the Suffolk poll was not a great one for Mr. Gingrich.

National polls are less important than those in Iowa and New Hampshire, but there is a worrying number for Mr. Gingrich here as well. The Gallup tracking poll, which has a larger sample size than most other surveys, shows Mr. Gingrich’s lead over Mr. Romney down to 5 points, 29 percent to 24 percent. A week and a half ago, when the Gallup poll made its debut, Mr. Gingrich’s lead was 15 points.

What is interesting about the Gallup poll is that Mr. Romney’s support has not increased very much; instead, the number of undecided voters has grown, which is fairly unusual at a critical stage of a primary campaign. This suggests that the race remains quite fluid, but that fluidity may no longer be working to Mr. Gingrich’s benefit.

It is important to keep in mind that none of this is happening in a vacuum; all of these numbers should be read in the context of other events in the campaign. What we have seen in recent days is a series of critiques of Mr. Gingrich by Mr. Romney, Mr. Paul and influential conservative publications like National Review. Mr. Gingrich is less equipped to respond to these critiques than a traditional front-runner, as he lacks high-profile surrogates to defend him and also has a relative paucity of money. Mr. Gingrich has said he will run a positive campaign and has often but not always stuck by that standard in recent days. The point, however, is that this strategy may be dictated as much by the financial and organizational constraints he faces as anything else: even if he wanted to counterattack each ad that the Romney or Paul campaign put out, he might lack the firepower to do so.

Even if you buy that Mr. Gingrich’s problems are real, there are still a few silver linings for his campaign. There are several prominent examples where a candidate’s momentum seemed to have sagged before turning right back around. Two weeks before the Iowa Democratic caucuses in 2008, Barack Obama’s polling appeared to be headed slightly downward — but the numbers reversed themselves in the final week and he won by a solid margin. Likewise, Mr. Obama appeared to be unstoppable after winning Iowa, but Hillary Rodham Clinton upset him in New Hampshire. Similarly, in 1980, Ronald Reagan appeared extremely vulnerable to the elder George Bush in New Hampshire after Mr. Bush won Iowa, but Mr. Reagan dominated the New Hampshire primary, winning by 27 points in what polls suggested was a tossup.

Another reason for Mr. Gingrich’s supporters not to despair is that the polls show very mixed numbers for Mr. Romney. Although the Rasmussen poll gives Mr. Romney the lead in Iowa, other polls conducted at about the same time give him as little as 12 percent of the vote and put him in fourth place there. It is difficult to make definitive statements about what sort of momentum candidates carry out of Iowa because this can vary greatly from election cycle to election cycle. But if Mr. Romney finishes fourth or fifth there, which remains eminently possible, it would make him vulnerable to a number of candidates in New Hampshire and leave the race wide open heading into South Carolina.

Finally, there is the issue of diminished expectations: if the perception is that Mr. Gingrich’s numbers are slipping heading into Iowa, a win there would be a bigger deal and could give him more of a bounce. Nevertheless, if I were Mr. Gingrich, I would rather have my 10-point lead in Iowa and the expectations that come with it.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.