In last night's Illinois Republican presidential primary, Newt Gingrich came in dead last, behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, as well as Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Many fellow Republicans have refused to support the former speaker, with some even calling for him to quit the race. Though it may seem to matter only inside the beltway, naysaying from high-profile politicos can easily sour voters' opinions of a candidate.
"Gingrich being pressured by the Republican Party to cease his campaigning does ultimately matter to voters," says Danny Hayes, assistant professor of government at American University in Washington, D.C. "It just may take a while for that to trickle down, and I think we're seeing that right now."
The Santorum campaign and its backers have for weeks called on Gingrich to drop out, and National Review Editor Rich Lowry and longtime conservative activist Richard Viguerie have joined the chorus. It's not just partisan heavy hitters: Political analyst Scott Rasmussen yesterday told the Daily Caller that if Gingrich dropped out, "it would be good for the party." Even polling heavyweight Gallup last week explored the effects of a Gingrich dropout (answer: minimal).
GOP members of Congress also have largely turned their backs on Gingrich: According to a tally from Roll Call, 87 have endorsed Mitt Romney, compared to only 11 who are supporting Gingrich.
These individual statements do not themselves change individual voters' minds, says Hayes. Rather, they together can create a current that drags a candidate down.
"When the party establishment ... communicates in some way that they're not behind the candidate, the news media pick up on that and they start withholding coverage or covering them in ways that are less than favorable," he says.
It does not appear that the news media has been withholding coverage—an analysis by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism shows that Gingrich saw renewed media attention during the week of March 12-18, and was present in 35 percent of stories studied. However, that new attention was "thanks in part to the discussion by Santorum and others about whether he should drop from the race." Just two weeks earlier, Gingrich's presence was at a mere 8 percent.
That sort of unfavorable media coverage, says Hayes, can have a bigger effect on voters: "That then filters to the public, which can then pretty easily infer, 'This is not a viable candidate, and this is not somebody who's worth casting a vote for.'"
That's bad news for Gingrich, who appears to need all the votes he can get, and then some.
A candidate needs 1,144 delegates to win the nod, and Gingrich has only 135, according to the Associated Press—roughly half of Santorum's 263 and less than one quarter of Romney's 563. And though he has done well in some southern contests, like South Carolina, Oklahoma, and his home state of Georgia, his chances in the next southern contest, Saturday's Louisiana primary, are exceedingly slim. RealClearPolitics' Louisiana poll average puts Gingrich in third place, more than 10 points behind the leader, Santorum. And on his FiveThirtyEight blog, the New York Times' Nate Silver gives Gingrich a 1 percent chance of winning.