The media can’t help themselves when it comes to presidential politics, and that’s never been more in evidence than in the current Republican nomination battle. For the press, campaign season is its Olympics, the time when reporters’ bosses open their wallets to send them to far off places like Dixville Notch, New Hampshire and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and correspondents can make a career on how well they report on the race. Except this year, there is no race. Mitt Romney will be the nominee, and that’s been clear for months.
Yet here’s the lead from today’s Wall Street Journal recap of yesterday’s New Hampshire primary: “Mitt Romney is a long way from claiming the Republican nomination, but he leaves New Hampshire with significant advantages in a field where no single opponent seems well-positioned to stop him or become the obvious alternative to him.” While the reporter may merely be acknowledging the mathematics of the delegates Romney still has to win in primaries across the country, the hedging on Romney’s inevitable victory, to anyone who follows the day-to-day stories in the campaign, rings hollow at best.
With Gingrich, then Santorum, and Bachmann and Cain before them, news stories always turned to polls to explain the latest in the “anyone but Romney” vote. But the story the media should be telling is that polls during campaign seasons historically change the most and matter the least. Flawed methodology and small sample sizes make even the most rigorous polling little more than a one-day snapshot of popular sentiment, yet poll results are often reported as if they were all but recorded in the county clerk’s election rolls.
What we should be reading about when it comes to the nomination are things like the size of each candidate’s ground force, the number of committed staff, an ongoing endorsement tally–in other words, the true measures of a candidate’s strength. By these measures, Romney has an overwhelming advantage and has for months. But for some reason such metrics are mentioned only in passing, if at all, or are left to weekend feature stories, as if the day-to-day news about Romney walking down a street in Manchester to knock on doors had anything to do with his viability as a national candidate.
Part of the problem, albeit unspoken, may be that the media haven’t really warmed to the often robotic and sometimes aloof Romney, and because of that, they are holding back on anointing him as the nominee. They therefore highlight those qualities in him and cite the failure of the Tea Party and evangelicals to coalesce around him, even though Romney has been carrying a majority of the overall support of the party, again, for many months now.
The other problem Romney is facing is that candidates with no chance of winning the nomination are refusing to get out of the race. While some may blame the influence of soft money and Super PACs in putting these campaigns on artificial life support, there are simpler explanations for why Gingrich, Cain, Perry, Santorum, Huntsman and Bachmann all stayed in so long: There’s nothing but upside for them, personally, in doing so. The longer candidates can claim a sliver of the national stage, the better off they are in the long run. For Gingrich and Cain, it helps them sell books and raise their personal profiles. For Santorum and many of the rest, they can position themselves to be important parts of Team Romney in the general election and in a Romney administration. Those who aren’t looking for a spot on Romney’s roster are especially willing to trade the enmity of the future GOP nominee for the media attention that bashing him brings. It’s all about job security. And after all, any publicity is good publicity–fueled by an ever-rotating media spotlight that really shouldn’t be shining on these also-rans in the first place. If Ron Paul, who consistently garners high percentages in polls and now in the New Hampshire primary, is widely acknowledged as being too far outside the Republican mainstream to win the nomination, there’s no way Huntsman, who could do no better than third in New Hampshire, can surge past both to win the nod.
Having been vetted during the GOP primaries in the 2008 cycle, what few skeletons there are in Romney’s closet have likely been thoroughly exhumed and inspected. There’s always the chance of a scandalous surprise to knock him from his perch, but it seems unlikely that the no-swearing, no-drinking, family man Mormon has any such bombshells to worry about. So what’s the net result of the media’s refusal to call this race all but over?
Probably a stronger and stronger platform for Barack Obama in the general election. The longer Romney has to beat back the fringe candidates in the primaries, the less work Obama has to do in the general election. But even that is not Romney’s biggest concern–rather, it’s the improving economy and the continual upward creep of economic and employment numbers–indications the country is getting back on the right track, upsetting his core argument against the incumbent.
Rick Perry has promised to make his last stand in South Carolina, and Jon Huntsman has said that the Florida primary on Jan. 31 will decide who the GOP nominee will be. While it may be fun for both men to dream, they know the race is long over, and the identity of the nominee will be Willard M. Romney. It may be fun for reporters to cover the remaining candidates as the political human-interest equivalent of the Jamaican bobsled team, but this isn’t the Olympics–it’s a national presidential election. It’s time to focus on who Romney is and what his policies as president would be, and how they stack up against Obama’s. With so much at stake for the future direction of the U.S. and its place in the world, anything else is, at best, a disservice to readers.
This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.
PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney points to supporters as he stands on stage with his relatives while speaking at his New Hampshire primary night rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, January 10, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Bourg