The latest results from the highly respected and much anticipated Des Moines Register Iowa Poll are in, and they show the duo of Herman Cain and Mitt Romney leading the field of Republican candidates.
Cain receives 23 percent of the vote to 22 percent for Romney. Ron Paul runs third, with 12 percent. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who had shared the lead with Romney in the previous Des Moines Register poll in June, now receives just 8 percent of the vote. Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich each receive 7 percent, followed by Rick Santorum at 5 percent.
The results of the Register poll are generally consistent with four other surveys of Iowa voters conducted in October, all of which showed Cain and Romney leading the pack. Two surveys conducted using live interviewers by CNN/Time and NBC News/Marist show Romney slightly ahead of Cain. Two automated, recorded voice surveys conducted by Rasmussen Reports and the Democratic-affiliated firm Public Policy Polling show Cain slightly ahead of Romney.
The Des Moines Register's Iowa Poll is the nation's longest continuously running newspaper poll, and it has asked Iowans about their caucus preferences since the 1980s. The Register and its current pollster Ann Selzer gained further acclaim four years ago when their final pre-caucus survey was the only public poll to show Barack Obama with a wide lead over Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. It was also the only poll to accurately forecast the "dramatic influx" of first-time caucus-goers that helped propel Obama to his eventual Iowa victory.
Because of the very low turnout of eligible adults to the Iowa Caucuses, however, all past polling of likely caucus-goers has been notoriously volatile. Although the Register poll accurately forecast Obama's win four years ago, its October poll conducted just three months earlier showed Obama running in third place, seven percentage points behind Clinton. Thus, with more than 10 weeks still remaining before the 2012 caucus, caution is in order.
The Register conducted telephone interviews Oct. 23 to Oct. 26 with 400 registered Republicans and independents who indicated they would definitely or probably attend the Republican Caucuses in early January. They report a margin of sampling error for the survey of +/- 4.9 percent. The Register will publish more results and analysis online Sunday morning.
UPDATE: Sunday, Oct. 30, 9:53 a.m -- More complete results published early Sunday morning by the Register underscore the considerable uncertainty in this snapshot of potential caucus participants.
The Register reports, for example, that 74 percent of likely Iowa Republican caucus-goers "currently have no first choice or could be persuaded to switch their first choice."
The poll also shows "serious vulnerabilities" for Romney among strong conservatives and those most likely to attend the caucus. Cain leads Romney by a 27 to 10 percent margin among those who say they definitely plan to vote in the caucus and by "more than 3 to 1" among those who identify themselves as very conservative.
Finally, there's an odd twist in the sampling of likely caucus-goers: As pollster Ann Selzer explains in a separate op-ed column, "Iowans 65 and older are the least likely of any age cohort in our poll to say they will attend the Republican caucus in January." As such, those age 65 and older are just 14 percent of likely caucus-goers in the poll, although they constituted 27 percent of actual participants in the Republican caucus four years ago, according to the television network entrance poll.
That shift may boost Cain's standing in the current poll. It finds that Cain enjoys his biggest margins not only among conservative voters and Tea Party supporters, but also among those ages 35 to 54.
The Register conducted follow-up interviews with older voters and found further anecdotal evidence of a lack of enthusiasm about the leading candidates.
Selzer notes that the newspaper saw a similar disinterest among older voters in its June poll and speculates that this might be "an early signal of change," like the surge of evangelical Christians in 1988 that "boosted Pat Robertson to second place" or the surge of first-time caucus-goers and independents that fueled Obama's victory in 2008.
Yet she is cautious about whether the finding "represents a fundamental change" or "some sort of oddity that means very little." It may signal a lower turnout or even "general disaffection" with politics among older Iowans.
"We do not know if this trend will resurface," Selzer writes. "We'll know to look for such signs in coming polls."
CORRECTION: This story previously stated that Herman Cain finished with 22 percent of the vote, slightly behind Mitt Romney's 23 percent of the vote. The correct results are: Cain with 23 percent of the vote, slightly ahead of Romney's 22 percent.