Which came first: The oft-repeated media talking point that GOPers are dissatisfied with the GOP field or GOPers’ actual dissatisfaction? It’s hard to know. Either way, by this point in the primary, the discontent is real, insofar as it is a sentiment overwhelmingly picked up by a recent Pew poll.

Republicans evaluating the field of potential GOP presidential nominees are increasingly negative about the current slate of candidates, according to a new poll from the Pew Research Center.

Fifty-two percent of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters said the GOP field was “fair or poor,” an eight percentage-point increase since the question was asked in early January.

Likewise, the number of Republicans who had positive feelings about the candidates dropped. Forty-six percent rated the current field of four candidates “excellent or good,” a drop from the 51% who had that response in January. The GOP field has undergone substantial change since then, with former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropping out of the contest.

Monday’s poll from Pew, which was conducted in partnership with the Washington Post, is the first time since this election cycle the negative response from voters outweighed the positive. Pew began asking the question in May 2011.

At least three factors are at work here. In the first place, the candidates themselves — Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich especially — have overtly and repeatedly turned their negativity on each other since early January. In the second, the most recent debates have been the most abominable of all in terms of the quality of the moderation and the general way in which they were calculated to make the Republican candidates appear disconnected with the problems of average Americans and concentrated on far-fetched  schemes (like self-deportation or a moon colony). In the third, conservative media, too, has actively engaged in the vetting process, dredging up every last conceivable objection to the GOP Final Four. The most obvious example of that is Matt Drudge’s decision to post a wave-making series of anti-Gingrich links (which I felt compelled to cover, too).

The high level of dissatisfaction is not necessarily a negative, though. It’s a sign that GOP voters are paying attention and really, really care to beat Obama. The sheer undesirability of his reelection gives the entire primary a note of adrenaline that’s hard to bear up under and can lead to feelings of exhaustion and despair, but that also makes the still-remaining candidates sharper. It’s also a sign that the race is far from over — and, as I wrote this morning, that Rick Santorum still has a chance. At most, he’s received just one serious look from voters, whereas Romney and Gingrich have been treated to two or three or four.

We have a long primary fight ahead — but, as The Wall Street Journal’s Jerry Seib wrote today, it won’t knock out the GOP. When we reach the other side of the primaries, my prediction is that GOP voters will be very satisfied with the discipline, grit and determination the eventual GOP nominee developed over the course of this long slog.