The political press corps, like their sportswriter brethren, prefers to cover contests where the winner is announced before the game is played. Until somebody anoints the overdog, no underdog can be proclaimed, profiled, and scrutinized to give the competition its needed dramatic tension. And when the candidates—or teams—are so piddling that a pre-winner can’t be identified, political correspondents and sportswriters panic.
Sportswriters actually have it worse, and National Football League writers worst of all, because the NFL deliberately pushes its 32 teams toward “parity” with spending caps, free agency, revenue sharing, shared TV rights, the college draft–which gives last year’s worst teams the best picks–and the so-called “balanced schedule,” which rewards last year’s bad teams with softer match-ups this year. The end product of NFL parity is the Jacksonville Jaguars, for whom .500 is a winning percentage.
The end product of Republican Party parity is the gang of gibbering right-wingers, token libertarians, and one or two centrists currently fumbling their way through the party’s presidential nomination process.
Other parallels abound. The tracking polls are the power rankings. The campaign managers are the general managers. The straw polls are the meaningless preseason games. The primaries are the regular season. The convention is the playoffs and the November election is the Super Bowl.
A political–or football–season shaped by parity stimulates the journalists doing the reporting to embrace the long-shots, especially long-shots who have recently put some points on the board. This explains the recent coverage of Herman Cain, who “upset,” as the Reuters headline puts it, Rick Perry in the Florida Republican straw poll late last month. As preseason games go, the Florida straw poll barely qualifies as an inter-squad scrimmage. Only 2,657 voters were cast in the non-binding contest. The results from the Florida state Miss America pageant are more meaningful. Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann, who are Cain and Perry’s partners in campaign mediocrity, indicated the superfluity of the Florida straw poll by not bothering to suit up for it.