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Paul Moves Into Lead in Iowa Forecast

Our Iowa forecasts, which are designed to be quite aggressive, have had a big reaction to the new Public Policy Polling survey published late Sunday evening. The poll showed Newt Gingrich’s support slipping badly in Iowa and Ron Paul moving into the lead.

The poll has Mr. Gingrich with 14 percent of the vote, down from 22 percent in the same poll one week earlier and continuing a streak of declining numbers for Mr. Gingrich in state and national surveys. Mitt Romney’s support improved to 20 percent from 16 percent in the previous Public Policy Polling survey. But it was Mr. Paul, at 23 percent in the poll, who held the lead. Mr. Paul thus becomes the sixth candidate to have led an Iowa caucus poll at some point this cycle, joining Mr. Romney, Mr. Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain.

Mr. Paul also leads our forecast. The model gives him a 44 percent chance of winning Iowa based on the current standing of the candidates and the historic uncertainty of polling-based forecasts. Mr. Romney has a 32 percent chance of winning, while Mr. Gingrich’s chances have crashed to 15 percent.

There remains a chance that Mrs. Bachmann, Mr. Perry or Rick Santorum could become a factor in Iowa. Mr. Paul and Mr. Romney are in a somewhat favorable position for now with support split about evenly between these three candidates. But there is still time for any of them to finish at 20 percent or higher with a late surge. The three — especially Mr. Santorum and Mrs. Bachmann — have reasonably strong favorability ratings, so voters could rally behind one of them if they appear to have late momentum.

Mr. Romney can perhaps afford to be less worried about downside-case scenarios that he was a week or two ago, particularly after receiving The Des Moines Register’s endorsement. In addition to his chances of winning Iowa outright, a close second-place finish behind Mr. Paul would be a reasonably favorable outcome for him. Still, Mr. Romney has yet to be tested with substantial negative advertisements from the other candidates, most of whom have been focusing on Mr. Gingrich.

In Mr. Paul’s case, it may now be as important to watch his New Hampshire polls as those in Iowa. Our New Hampshire forecasts now give Mr. Paul about a 17 percent chance of winning the state, but those odds would improve with a win in Iowa. Although Mr. Romney might prefer that Mr. Paul win Iowa rather than a candidate like Mr. Gingrich or Mr. Perry who had a potentially broader base of support, all bets would be off if Mr. Paul won New Hampshire too.

Mr. Gingrich, meanwhile, will have to consider whether to shift his strategy. Although Mr. Gingrich has run a comparatively positive campaign, voters do not seem inclined to reward him for it, as his favorability rating has declined to 46 percent in the survey against 47 percent unfavorable, a substantial worsening from previous weeks. The next 72 hours could be critical for Mr. Gingrich, particularly if the trend is confirmed by other polls. If Mr. Gingrich has any assets in reserve in Iowa, like endorsements or a late burst in advertising spending, he may need to deploy them sooner rather than later before voters conclude that his ship is sinking and move on to other candidates.

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