The last Des Moines Register poll is out tonight, with Mitt Romney leading and Rick Santorum, as more or less expected, moving up rapidly. For the full poll, conducted December 27-30, Romney leads at 24 percent, Ron Paul is second at 22 percent, then Santorum at 15 percent, Newt Gingrich 12 percent, Rick Perry 11 percent, Michele Bachmann 7 percent. However, Santorum was rallying so quickly that the DMR also released separate results from just Thursday and Friday, which showed Santorum jumping into second place over Paul, 21 percent to 18 percent. As with every other nomination poll all year, voters expressed a lot of uncertainty, so we could still see large changes.

Quick reaction? If in fact Romney, Paul, and Santorum grab the top three spots, it probably doesn’t matter at all which order they’ll finish in. The big story out of Iowa will be Santorum, who has received practically zero media coverage until this week and even now not much. That’s going to be true whether the former Pennsylvania Senator finishes first, second, or third. He’ll certainly (assuming nothing else happens) zoom up to at least fourth in New Hampshire the following Tuesday, and I’d bet he winds up higher than that — perhaps a lot higher.

Part of what will determine how high he surges, and how long and serious his surge lasts, will be what key conservative groups and leaders think of him — and what those who haven’t yet endorsed Romney think of the Massachusetts governor. As I’ve said, it’s possible that Romney has a batch of endorsements in his pocket just waiting for Iowa to be over in case Romney stumbled there. It’s also possible that those who haven’t jumped to the Mittster year really don’t want to, but also haven’t been even remotely interested in Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, or Ron Paul (remember, when Perry was surging he did attract some endorsements, unlike the others). How big is that group, and how do they feel about Santorum? I don’t think we know, but we may be finding out soon.

But it’s unlikely, I think, that any of that changes based on the exact order of Romney, Paul, and Santorum. Other notes…Newt Gingrich is, in my view, the most likely to underperform his poll numbers. Rick Perry? He’s apparently well-organized; that could help him, as could last-minute advertising, but then again strategic voting could hurt him, with conservatives shifting to Santorum. Bachmann will probably continue to bleed support, hurt by strategic voting. In my view, it’s still possible that Perry could sneak into the top three in Iowa, but highly unlikely that the other two will. It’s also possible that Perry could survive to compete in South Carolina if he finishes a strong fourth — although so far, there’s no real sign he’s going to do that. As I’ve said before, if they were normal candidates Newt and Bachmann would drop out after weak showings in Iowa, but normal incentives don’t really explain their actions, so it’s hard to know. I do expect Perry to drop out if he finishes a weak fourth or worse.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.