A few months ago, Matt Taibbi suggested that gaffes from conservative candidates didn't hurt them. "When you laugh at Michele Bachmann for going on MSNBC and blurting out that the moon is made of red communist cheese," he wrote, "these people don't learn that she is wrong. What they learn is that you're a dick, that they hate you more than ever, and that they're even more determined now to support anyone who promises not to laugh at their own visions and fantasies."
Dave Weigel says events have emphatically debunked this idea:
That's clearly not true, is it? Bachmann, Cain, and Perry have engendered the exact same reaction to their screw-ups. There's a wave of media-bashing from the base, collect-a-quotes from Tea Party leaders who say the media is unfair. And then the lights go elsewhere, and there's a slow, quiet, walk-away from the damaged candidates. In today's NH Journal poll of the Granite State, all three of the candidates I mentioned are deep, deep underwater on favorability. It's almost like Republican voters still pay attention to the media.
Hold on a minute, pardner. Let's roll the tape on this:
- Michele Bachmann was riding high in the polls through June and early July. Then, on July 16, the Des Moines Register asked Rick Perry if he was going to run and he replied that he was "getting more and more comfortable every day that this is what I’ve been called to do." Bachmann started plateauing in the polls. On August 8 it was widely reported that Perry would formally announce his candidacy the following weekend, and the next day Bachmann's poll numbers tanked for good.
- Rick Perry began his meteoric rise at the same time and kept on rising through the first week of September. Then, on September 12, Bachmann laid into him for mandating HPV vaccinations for "innocent little 12-year-old girls." Perry immediately began sliding in the polls. On September 22 he suggested that if you opposed in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants, "I don't think you have a heart." Within a week his poll numbers began to plunge.
- Herman Cain was the beneficiary of Perry's fall, rising in the polls during the entire month of October. On October 30 Politico reported that two former employees had lodged sexual harassment charges against him and received payouts from the National Restaurant Association. After a week of wildly fluctuating explanations, Sharon Bialek held a televised press conference on November 7 to say that Cain groped her in a car and asked, "You want a job, right?" Within days Cain's poll numbers began falling.
I don't doubt for a second that erratic debate performances and public gaffes have played a role in damaging all three candidates. But that's mainly because conservative voters already had something substantive to hang their concerns on. Bachmann fell because Perry entered the race; Perry fell because conservatives didn't like his Gardasil and immigration policies; and Cain fell because of sexual harassment charges. That's the main thing that damaged them. Acting like idiots was just the cherry on top.