The first Gallup poll released in the New Year — covering the period from December 26 through January 2 — shows Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich practically tied with 24 and 23 percent support, respectively, among registered Republican and Republican-leaning voters. Ron Paul is all alone in third place, with 13 percent support. Meanwhile, Rick Perry (7 percent support), Rick Santorum (6 percent support), and Michele Bachmann (5 percent support), are well back, in a grouping from fourth to sixth place, while Jon Huntsman (2 percent support) is by himself in seventh.

Gallup’s polling is a reminder that while tonight’s caucus results in Iowa — a state comprising just 1 percent of the U.S. population — will tell us something, that something should nevertheless be viewed through a national lens.

If Santorum wins tonight, will it be a sign that he’ll vault into the top tier to stay, or will it more likely suggest that his essentially having moved to Iowa paid off in making him the anti-Romney pick of choice in the Hawkeye State?

If Romney wins with something like 25 percent support, will it convey that he has the nomination all but sown up, or will it indicate that, despite the weakness of the current field, 75 percent of Republicans would still rather have somebody else (perhaps even somebody from outside the current field)?

If Gingrich finishes fourth or fifth in Iowa, as expected, will it indicate that he’s no longer Romney’s chief rival, or will it reflect that Iowa voters saw a lot more anti-Gingrich ads than anti-anybody-else ads — a trend that likely won’t continue (or at least not to the same degree) in New Hampshire and South Carolina?

In each of these cases, the national polling suggests that the more accurate interpretation is the latter one — but don’t expect the press corps to shy away from advancing the former.

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