Discuss as:

First Thoughts: Three storylines from our Iowa poll

Three storylines from our new NBC-Marist poll: 1) The negative TV ads against Gingrich have worked, explaining why his numbers have sunk … 2) The Tea Party support is splintered, explaining why Romney could win this thing… 3) There’s a lack of enthusiasm for Romney, explaining why he could still lose… Other observations: Paul has a high floor but perhaps a low ceiling, and Santorum and Perry have room to grow, if there’s enough time… And “Meet the Press” has Santorum on Sunday. 

DES MOINES, IA -- Here’s the headline from our new NBC-Marist poll of Iowa: With just four days left until the Jan. 3 caucuses, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul are running neck and neck, with Romney at 23% among likely caucus-goers and Paul at 21%. Meanwhile, Rick Santorum has surged to third place (going from 6% last month to 15% now) and Newt Gingrich has collapsed (from his lead of 28% to fifth place at 13%). Also in the poll, Rick Perry finds himself in fourth place (at 14%) and Bachmann is in sixth (at 6%). But the poll contains three big storylines beyond the horserace numbers.

*** The negative ads hitting Gingrich worked (and why he could end up in single digits): First, the negative TV ads directed at Gingrich -- from the pro-Romney Super PAC and also the Paul campaign -- have worked, and they might be the most consequential story so far of the GOP presidential race. Besides Gingrich’s drop from first place to fifth, 35% of likely caucus-goers now say the former House speaker would be unacceptable as the GOP’s nominee (only Paul has a higher "unacceptable" rating). That’s a whopping 19-point increase (!!!) from last month, and only Paul has a higher “unacceptable” rating. (Just 21% say Romney would be unacceptable and 24% say Santorum is unacceptable.) What’s more, only 6% in the survey identify Gingrich as the “true conservative” in the Republican contest. “He took it on the chin,” says Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, which conducted the survey. For Gingrich, there wasn’t a sex scandal (a la Herman Cain) or an “oops” moment (a la Perry). Instead, it a pure old-fashioned "voter-education campaign," and Romney didn’t have to get himself dirty in the process.

*** Splintered Tea Party support (and why Romney could win this thing): A second storyline is that the divided conservative vote in Iowa creates a path to victory for Romney. In last month’s NBC-Marist poll of Iowa, Gingrich had a large lead over Romney (and the other GOP rivals) among Tea Party supporters. But in this new poll, Tea Party supporters -- who make up about half of all likely caucus-goers -- are splintered. Santorum gets 20% from them, Romney and Paul get 17%, Gingrich 16%, Perry 15%, and Bachmann 10%. So six candidates are WITHIN THE MARGIN OF ERROR among Tea Party supporters. Simply stunning. “This is the Romney dream scenario,” Miringoff says. “When you look at the Tea Party and conservatives, they are all splintered.” And it explains how Romney getting 25% of the vote on Tuesday -- the exact percentage he received when he finished in second in Iowa four years ago -- could put him in first this time around.

In the past two weeks, support has fallen sharply in Iowa for Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

*** A lack of enthusiasm for Romney (and why he could still lose): So while Romney might benefit from a splintered conservative vote, his support isn’t the strongest. That honor goes to Santorum with 59% strongly supporting him. Next is Paul at 54%, then Perry at 52%, and Romney comes in fourth at 51%. Iowa voter Carolyn Erickson told NBC News yesterday that she is leaning toward Romney because her preferred candidate -- Bachmann -- is unlikely to win. "Even though I love Michelle Bachmann and would like to see her maybe be vice president or whatever, I just don't think that she has a chance.” So the danger for Romney is that people who are leaning to him (because of electability, etc.) don’t show up on Jan. 3.

*** Paul’s low ceiling; Santorum and Perry have room to grow: In addition to those three storylines, here are some more observations from our poll. For one thing, Ron Paul appears to have a high floor (with his 54% strong support), but he might have the lowest ceiling (41% believe he’s unacceptable as the GOP nominee). Also, both Santorum (just 22% think he’s unacceptable) and Perry (24% unacceptable) have room to grow, if there’s enough time. And speaking of time, chew on this: What if this race is already frozen due to the upcoming New Year’s holiday? Is there time left to make a move?

Countdown to Iowa caucuses: 4 days
Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 11 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 22 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 32 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 36 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 67 days
Countdown to Election Day: 314 days

Click here to sign up for First Read emails.
Text FIRST to 622639, to sign up for First Read alerts to your mobile phone.
Check us out on Facebook and also on Twitter. Follow us @chucktodd, @mmurraypolitics, @DomenicoNBC, @brookebrower