Stepping back and watching a mugging

Newt Gingrich, as far as I can tell from 1000 miles away (I’m in San Antonio), is just getting hammered right now in Iowa. Either in ads or in their stump speech, at least four of Newt’s competitors are slamming him hard.

There are two theories about how this will play out. One is what conservative Jonah Goldberg said today: Newt is not vulnerable to attacks, because everyone already knows all the dirt about him. This is often combined with the theory that the link between Newt and conservatives is especially strong because of Newt’s perceived role in the 1994 landslide and in battling Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

The other theory is that most people don’t pay much attention to politics and know little or nothing of Newt’s negatives, and when they learn about the ethics problems, the deviations from conservative orthodoxy, the ad with Nancy Pelosi, and other things that his support will tank just as Michele Bachmann’s and Herman Cain’s did. Which would be what I’ve been saying.

Well, we’re about a week into the all-out assault on Gingrich, punctuated by a performance in Saturday night’s debate that got generally good reviews…and while we don’t have definitive evidence yet, it’s looking bad for Goldberg, and more importantly for Newt. Yesterday’s PPP poll had Newt’s negatives up dramatically, and Politico’s Maggie Haberman reports that the same thing is showing up in the candidates’ internal polls (via Goddard). It’s still too early to know for sure the magnitude of the damage, or even for sure if it’s real, but what evidence there is shows Newt just as vulnerable to a massive multi-candidate attack as I’d have expected.

One factor? Here’s where Newt’s unpopularity among highly visible conservative opinion leaders matters. Because practically no one appears to be rallying to his side. Even if conservatives aren’t interested in defending him against the specific charges that are being made, they certainly could call foul on the attackers for going so harshly negative against another Republican. Ronald Reagan’s supposed 11th Commandment (against attacking within the GOP) could be invoked. Instead, we get either piling on, or crickets. That matters; it lowers the costs of going negative, which include the risk that the attacking candidate will be branded as divisive within his or her own party. Of course, it helps that practically the whole field is doing it (with Jon Huntsman going negative against Romney in New Hampshire to boot), and it’s certainly possible that those seeing the ads directly might punish the attackers. Still, however, if Republican party actors step back and watch the mugging, it certainly doesn’t help the victim.

Among other things, we’ve already seen Newt lose message discipline and lash out at Romney yesterday; it will be interesting to see how well he manages to avoid repeating that, or worse. He’s certainly going to be provoked enough times. Newt could certainly win in Iowa, but I’d bet against it this point…and I wouldn’t be particularly surprised if he falls right out of the top three.

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.