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Polling Gridlock in Iowa Could Produce Last-Minute Momentum

The most interesting thing about the latest polls in Iowa (which are the basis for our forecasts) is that they essentially show a four-way tie for third place among the Republican presidential contenders, with Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry all projected to receive between 11 and 14 percent of the vote.

This is especially interesting because these candidates, with the partial exception of Mr. Gingrich, have very similar platforms to one another. They are hoping for support from many of the same demographic groups, especially evangelical voters, and have struck many of the same themes in their attempts to appeal to caucusgoers.

If these candidates could somehow combine forces, they could very easily win the caucuses. Even if you exclude Mr. Gingrich from the group, Mr. Santorum, Mrs. Bachmann and Mr. Perry collectively have about 34 percent of the vote, well above the projected figure for either Ron Paul or Mitt Romney, the candidates leading the polls.

I cannot recall another instance in which you had a configuration of candidates quite like this one. I’m sure there have been cases in the past where you had a multiway tie for second or third place in advance of a primary or caucus. But probably not one in which the candidates involved in the deadlock were so similar, or when they were each within striking distance of first place.

Is there any way to break the tie between them? That’s exactly what the conservative group the Family Leader was trying to do last week: pick one of these candidates and hope to build some momentum behind him. However, the group hedged on its endorsement, failing to throw its full support behind any of the candidates, although two influential members of the group later endorsed Mr. Santorum.

Still, there are a lot of Iowans who like neither Mr. Paul nor Mr. Romney, both of whom may be close to maxing out on their support. Mr. Romney, for instance, drew the support of 20 percent of caucusgoers in Tuesday’s Public Policy Polling survey despite the fact that only 44 percent of voters take a favorable view of him. In a seven-candidate field, converting about half of those who like you into voters is a very high conversion rate. The flip side is that about two-thirds of the voters who are not currently supporting Mr. Romney have a negative view of him.

There are extremely strong incentives for supporters of Mrs. Bachmann, Mr. Santorum and Mr. Perry to behave tactically, throwing their weight behind whichever one appears to have the best chance of finishing in the top two. What that means is that if any of these candidates appear to have any momentum at all during the final week of the campaign, their support could grow quite quickly as other voters jump on the bandwagon.

This is also a case in which the polling may actually influence voter behavior. In particular, if one of these candidates does well in the highly influential Des Moines Register poll that should be published on New Year’s Eve or thereabouts, that candidate might be a pretty good bet to overperform polling as voters use that as a cue on caucus night to determine which one is most viable.

I’d also pay a lot of attention to the press coverage for each candidate. Right now, for instance, there seem to be a fair number of stories about Mr. Santorum, which suggests that it is his turn to “surge” in the polls.

I’m not sure that this theory actually makes any sense. Herman Cain’s polling surge in October came after a previous (although much less pronounced) surge in his polling in May. But it may not matter if the theory is true. If voters are looking for anything to break the logjam between these candidates, mere speculation that one of them has momentum could prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Our forecasting model is meant to be fairly simple and is certainly not designed to account for such complex dynamics. It may therefore underrate the chances of one of these candidates winning.

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