The fact is that born-again Christians in Iowa – or their close equivalent, evangelical Christians – remain hesitant to embrace the unorthodox candidacy of Paul or the Mormon faith of Romney. And that could leave an opening for someone like Santorum to rally.
To this point, there hasn’t been a singular and obvious third option for this key constituency, which comprises up to half or more of the caucus electorate, depending on whom you believe, and delivered the state to Mike Huckabee in 2008
But that might be changing.
The poll showed Santorum taking 22 percent of born-again Christians, moving him into first place among that group. And if he can make other born-agains believe that he’s the one viable alternative to Romney and Paul, then maybe he can create enough of a rallying effect to unite evangelicals behind his campaign.
“That bandwagon effect at the end can be very powerful in moving numbers dramatically in the last five days,” said former Iowa Republican Party chairman Steve Grubbs, pointing to Huckabee’s win.
There’s also the fact that many voters are receptive to Santorum; other polling has suggested he is a popular second-choice pick.
That suggests voters want to vote for Santorum, but perhaps didn’t see him as someone who could actually win. But if they now see him as a viable option, maybe they move into his camp.
“So it means he still has upside — beyond evangelicals but certainly including them,” said Nick Ryan, the founder of the pro-Santorum super PAC that is current running a quarter-million dollars worth of ads in the Hawkeye State.
The problem, though, is that Santorum is running against two other lower-tier candidates — Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann — who have significant appeal to evangelicals as well. And they aren’t so far behind Santorum (they take 11 percent and 9 percent, respectively) that they wouldn’t also appear to be viable options.
Perry, in particular, has made a pretty overt effort to play up his Christian faith, including running a TV ad that suggested children aren’t allowed to pray in schools and holding a huge gathering of Christians in Houston before launching his campaign.
It will certainly be interesting to see how he performs in 4 days, and how much momentium he gains from what will undoubtedly be a strong finish.