Mitt Romney and Ron Paul are tied for the lead in Iowa days before Hawkeye State Republicans will caucus to choose their preferred GOP presidential nominee, according to a new NBC News/Marist poll that also shows former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., ascending into third place on the backs of more conservative likely caucusgoers and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich plummeting into fifth place.
Romney leads Paul, the Texas congressman, in the poll, 23 percent to 21 percent -- well within the margin of error of +/- 4.7 percent. Santorum is third, at 15 percent, virtually deadlocked with Texas Gov. Rick Perry at 14 percent and Gingrich, who is at 13 percent. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., earned just 6 percent. Two percent preferred former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, and 7 percent of likely caucusgoers are undecided.
In early December, Gingrich led the field, with 28 percent. Romney and Paul each were at 19 percent, followed by Perry with 10 percent. Bachmann was at 7 percent earlier this month, and Santorum was at 6 percent.
Santorum's surge into third place is, in part, due to the increasing support among more conservative Republicans. Among tea party supporters, he leads, with 20 percent. Romney and Paul are each at 17 percent among tea party supporters, followed closely by Gingrich at 16 percent, Perry at 15 percent and Bachmann at 10 percent. The poll, like a CNN/Time/ORC poll released on Wednesday, shows that the failure of more conservative caucusgoers to coalesce around one candidate is aiding Romney's chances; the former Massachusetts governor runs stronger among more moderate Republicans, according to most polls.
Among all registered voters, the poll shows President Obama is running slightly stronger than he did earlier this month. Forty-five percent of Iowa voters approve of the job Obama is doing as president, while 43 percent disapprove. In early December, just 43 percent of voters approved of the job Obama was doing.
The NBC News/Marist poll is the first nonpartisan live-caller poll conducted in Iowa after the Christmas holiday. The Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, conducted by West Des Moines-based pollster Selzer & Co., is slated for release Saturday evening.
The NBC News/Marist poll was conducted Dec. 27-28, surveying 2,905 registered voters. The margin of error for the full sample is +/- 1.8 percent.
There were 433 likely GOP caucusgoers. Unlike the CNN/Time/ORC poll, which used a voter list of Republicans provided by the state, the NBC News/Marist poll included Democrats and independents who said they were likely to attend a caucus on Jan. 3 and change their registration to Republican. The NBC News/Marist poll also surveyed some respondents via cell phone, unlike the CNN/Time/ORC poll and automated polls.