A photo finish in Iowa

The Iowa caucuses are, of course, just a day away, and for campaign junkies following the contest, the polls can’t come quickly enough. But because the race is changing so dramatically in the 11th hour, new data matters most.

Indeed, the Des Moines Register‘s Iowa Poll, widely considered the gold standard for Hawkeye State polling, included a fascinating tidbit: Rick Santorum was running third in the poll with 15%, but “if the final two days of polling are considered separately, Santorum rises to second place,” with 21%.

The DMR‘s poll was conducted from Tuesday to Friday last week. A new survey from Public Policy Polling, meanwhile, was in the field on Saturday and Sunday, and it shows an even more competitive top tier:

1. Ron Paul: 20%
2. Mitt Romney: 19%
3. Rick Santorum: 18%
4. Newt Gingrich: 14%
5. Rick Perry: 10%
6. Michele Bachmann: 8%
7. Jon Huntsman: 4%
8. Buddy Roemer: 2%

When the top three candidates are within two points of one another, it’s safe to say it’s an unpredictable contest.

PPP’s analysis added, “The momentum in the race is completely on Santorum’s side. He’s moved up 8 points since a PPP poll earlier in the week, while no one else has seen more than a one point gain in their support…. Santorum’s net favorability of 60/30 makes him easily the most popular candidate in the field. No one else’s favorability exceeds 52%. He may also have more room to grow in the final 48 hours of the campaign than the other front runners.”

Reiterating a point from yesterday, I still think the order of the bottom three may very well end up mattering more than the order of the top three. Santorum will get a boost no matter where he ends up in the top tier, in large part because he was a largely-ignored afterthought as recently as two weeks ago.

Poor showings among the second-tier candidates, meanwhile, may knock one or more candidates out of the race altogether.