Democratic pollster PPP says that the race in Iowa has flipped yet again.  Just a couple of weeks ago, Newt Gingrich rode high in the polls as the alternative to Mitt Romney, but PPP now says that role has fallen to … Ron Paul:

Newt Gingrich’s campaign is rapidly imploding, and Ron Paul has now taken the lead in Iowa.  He’s at 23% to 20% for Mitt Romney, 14% for Gingrich, 10% each for Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry, 4% for Jon Huntsman, and 2% for Gary Johnson.

Gingrich has now seen a big drop in his Iowa standing two weeks in a row.  His share of the vote has gone from 27% to 22% to 14%.  And there’s been a large drop in his personal favorability numbers as well from +31 (62/31) to +12 (52/40) to now -1 (46/47). Negative ads over the last few weeks have really chipped away at Gingrich’s image as being a strong conservative- now only 36% of voters believe that he has ‘strong principles,’ while 43% think he does not.

Paul’s ascendancy is a sign that perhaps campaigns do matter at least a little, in a year where there has been a lot of discussion about whether they still do in Iowa.  22% of voters think he’s run the best campaign in the state compared to only 8% for Gingrich and 5% for Romney. The only other candidate to hit double digits on that question is Bachmann at 19%. Paul also leads Romney 26-5 (with Gingrich at 13%) with the 22% of voters who say it’s ‘very important’ that a candidate spends a lot of time in Iowa.  Finally Paul leads Romney 29-19 among the 26% of likely voters who have seen one of the candidates in person.

PPP says that they are polling likely Republican caucus-goers, but there’s a reason for a little skepticism on their sample.  At 597 respondents, the size is respectable enough, but its composition and definition of “likely” is quite shaky.  Only a little over half (55%) bothered to caucus with Republicans in 2008, an election primary with as much publicity and import as this one. Thirteen percent caucused with the Democrats, which is reasonable because (a) Democrats aren’t conducting a primary this cycle, and (b) some who caucused with Democrats might be inclined to support Republicans this year.

However, almost a third (32%) didn’t caucus with either party in 2008.  How can they be considered “likely” caucus-goers in this cycle?  It can’t be because Ron Paul is running this time, because he was running in 2008 as well.

There are other reasons for skepticism.  RealClearPolitics notes two other polls taken in almost the same timeframe as PPP’s survey, and Paul was below 20% in both (Rasmussen and Insider Advantage).  They all show fairly close margins, but the PPP looks like a bit of an outlier — at least for now.

Paul supporter Tim Carney warns that the GOP will hammer Paul if he takes Iowa:

The Republican presidential primary has become a bit feisty, but it will get downright ugly if Ron Paul wins the Iowa caucuses.

The principled, antiwar, Constitution-obeying, Fed-hating, libertarian Republican congressman from Texas stands firmly outside the bounds of permissible dissent as drawn by either the Republican establishment or the mainstream media. (Disclosure: Paul wrote the foreword to my 2009 book.)

Well, how is that different than what has already happened to Gingrich, Romney, Perry, Herman Cain, et al?  Does it only get ugly when it happens to people who write the forward to your own books?  Carney, whose writing I otherwise admire and enjoy, tosses this in as an aside in the penultimate paragraph:

Paul’s indiscretions — such as abiding 9/11 conspiracy theorists and allowing racist material in a newsletter published under his name — will be blown up to paint a scary caricature. His belief in state’s rights and property rights will be distorted into support for Jim Crow and racism.

“Allowing racist material in a newsletter published under his name” means publishing racist material, if not writing it himself.  James Kirchick returns at the Weekly Standard to emphasize the length and breadth of that racist material, and the profit that Paul made over the years from publishing it, and notes that most of it was written in the first person under Paul’s name on the banner:

In January 2008, the New Republic ran my story reporting the contents of monthly newsletters that Paul published throughout the 1980s and 1990s. While a handful of controversial passages from these bulletins had been quoted previously, I was able to track down nearly the entire archive, scattered between the University of Kansas and the Wisconsin Historical Society (both of which housed the newsletters in collections of extreme right-wing American political literature). Though particular articles rarely carried a byline, the vast majority were written in the first person, while the title of the newsletter, in its various iterations, always featured Paul’s name: Ron Paul’s Freedom Report, the Ron Paul Political Report, the Ron Paul Survival Report, and the Ron Paul Investment Letter. What I found was unpleasant.

“Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks,” read a typical article from the June 1992 “Special Issue on Racial Terrorism,” a supplement to the Ron Paul Political Report. Racial apocalypse was the most persistent theme of the newsletters; a 1990 issue warned of “The Coming Race War,” and an article the following year about disturbances in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., was entitled “Animals Take Over the D.C. Zoo.” Paul alleged that Martin Luther King Jr., “the world-class philanderer who beat up his paramours,” had also “seduced underage girls and boys.” The man who would later proclaim King a “hero” attacked Ronald Reagan for signing legislation creating the federal holiday in his name, complaining, “We can thank him for our annual Hate Whitey Day.”

No conspiracy theory was too outlandish for Paul’s endorsement. One newsletter reported on the heretofore unknown phenomenon of “Needlin’,” in which “gangs of black girls between the ages of 12 and 14” roamed the streets of New York and injected white women with possibly HIV-infected syringes. Another newsletter warned that “the AIDS patient” should not be allowed to eat in restaurants because “AIDS can be transmitted by saliva,” a strange claim for a physician to make.

Paul gave credence to the theory, later shown to have been the product of a Soviet disinformation effort, that AIDS had been created in a U.S. government laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Three months before far-right extremists killed 168 Americans in Oklahoma City, Paul’s newsletter praised the “1,500 local militias now training to defend liberty” as “one of the most encouraging developments in America.” And he offered specific advice to antigovernment militia members, such as, “Keep the group size down,” “Keep quiet and you’re harder to find,” “Leave no clues,” “Avoid the phone as much as possible,” and “Don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”

Put aside the question of authorship for a moment.  In what universe would any Republican imagine having a snowball’s chance in Hell of winning a national election with the publisher of this offensive claptrap at the top of the ticket?

While Republicans rightly excoriate Newt Gingrich for his one love-seat appearance with Nancy Pelosi for a climate-change dialogue, Kirchick reminds us of Paul’s close and longtime association with conspiracy-theory crank Alex Jones:

In the four years since my article appeared, Paul has gone right on appearing regularly on the radio program of Alex Jones, the most popular conspiracy theorist in America (unless that distinction belongs to Paul himself). To understand Jones’s paranoid worldview, it helps to watch a recent documentary he produced, Endgame: Blueprint for Global Enslavement, which reveals the secret plot of George Pataki, David Rockefeller, and Queen Beatrix, among other luminaries, to exterminate humanity and transform themselves into “superhuman” computer hybrids able to “travel throughout the cosmos.” There is nothing Jones believes the American government isn’t capable of, from “[encouraging] homosexuality with chemicals so that people don’t have children” to blowing up the Space Shuttle Columbia, a “textbook psychological warfare operation.”

In a March 2009 interview, Paul entertained Jones’s claim that NORTHCOM, the U.S. military’s combatant command for North America, is “taking over” the country. “The average member of Congress probably isn’t a participant in the grand conspiracy,” Paul reassured the fevered host, essentially acknowledging that such a conspiracy exists. “We need to take out the CIA.” On Paul’s latest appearance on the Jones show, just last week, he called allegations that Iran had attempted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States a “propaganda stunt” of the Obama administration. In a January 2010 speech, Paul announced, “There’s been a coup, have you heard? It’s the CIA coup” against the American government. “They’re in businesses, in drug businesses,” the congressman added.

If Iowa picks Ron Paul as its caucus winner, two things will result.  First, Mitt Romney will probably run the table as Republicans everywhere else but Iowa recoil in horror.  Second, Iowa will likely end up losing whatever cachet it has managed to build over the last three decades as a first-in-the-nation proving ground for presidential candidates, and the drumbeat to unseat both Iowa and New Hampshire from the front end of the primary system will prove irresistible.

Update: Neil Stevens also expresses considerable skepticism with PPP’s sample:

The problem with the poll is that it’s just not likely to be true, though. We have a benchmark for evaluating this poll: 2008 Iowa caucus entrance polls. The partisan alignment is all wrong: In 2008 the caucuses, being closed of course, included 86% self-identified Republicans, 13% self-identified Independents who presumably registered Republican to caucus, 1% Democrats, 1% “Other.” PPP’s poll drops the Republican proportion to 75%, raises Independents to 19%, and raises Democrats to 5%. Guess who’s helped by both of those shifts, which are far outside the Margin of Error and so predict genuine, large shifts in the partisan makeup of the closed Iowa caucuses. That’s right: Ron Paul, who wins 40% of Democrats, 34% of Independents, but only 19% of Republicans according to the poll.

There are three broad possibilities: The 2008 entrance polls are wrong. The 2012 Republican caucuses will find huge new turnout from independent voters showing up and registering Republican. The PPP poll has systemic issues and is not meaningful.

Other suspicious bits: Do we really believe that 36% of “Very liberal” Iowa caucusers went for Mike Huckabee and not Rudy Giuliani or John McCain? Do we believe the Republican Party’s makeup has shifted so that John McCain would have tied for second in Iowa in 2008? That’s what PPP says: Huckabee 26%, Romney and McCain 19%. Remember that the actual result was Huckabee 34, Romney 25, Fred Thompson 13, McCain 13.

There is no doubt that Paul was picking up some momentum in this race, but the PPP poll seems way too problematic for any conclusions about its current state.

Update II: Karl takes on the Paul-apologist punditry, at Patterico.