Fatigue is an under-appreciated factor in presidential politics: A mandatory eight hours sleep per night would produce far fewer “gaffes” by candidates and their spokesmen. But I doubt that this is a major factor affecting the press corps assigned to chronicle Santorum. After three decades covering presidential races, I can testify that campaign reporters yearn to stay out on the trail as long as there is a hint of drama to the story. The problem is when the campaign becomes like the movie Groundhog Day, when each day seems like the last and disconsolate reporters sense that no one is reading (or watching) their stories. With no major primaries for a month (aside from Wisconsin and Maryland on April 3) and no movement in the GOP race, journalists these days are understandably as interested in clean clothes as clean copy.
I think a larger problem is that no one on a press bus wants to be suckered by a candidate’s ludicrous victory strategy that involves mass hypnosis and his major rival defecting to North Korea. So the press pack’s mantra has always been (with apologies to Richard Nixon), “I am not a schnook.”
Staring at the widely used Associated Press delegate scoreboard, which shows Romney ahead of Santorum by more than a two-to-one margin, it is easy to accept the consensus judgment that it’s Mitt by a mile. But the fine print explaining the AP’s methodology reveals that these numbers (Romney 568, Santorum 273) include unpledged delegates and assume that final caucus-state allocations will reflect the initial candidate preference votes. The truth is that the GOP’s national delegate rules are filled with strange loopholes and are, in some instances, contradictory. That is why I prefer to rely on the more cautious delegate calculations by Davidson College political science professor Josh Putnam on his website, Frontloading HQ. Putnam’s numbers have Romney less than halfway to nomination (504 delegates), although Santorum lags even further behind (195 delegates).
My point is not to deny Romney’s obvious lead, but to add the skeptical note that things can go wrong for a front-runner when he is still 640 votes short of the nomination. Moreover, Jeff Greenfield (a friend and a fellow columnist for Yahoo! News) recently pointed out that if Santorum is still scrapping for the nomination in Tampa, he could challenge the winner-take-all rules that gave Romney all 79 delegates from the Florida and Arizona primaries. GOP convention delegates are free agents when it comes to balloting on rules questions and a state cannot vote on challenges to its own delegation. The devil in all these details: Romney would have to come to Tampa with close to 1,200 votes to have full control of the convention.
In their Mitt-is-it rush, the press corps and the TV pundits are also be drawing the wrong lessons from the protracted 2008 Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton primary fight. In hindsight, only the Clinton name and the aggressive spin wars waged on Hillary’s behalf by Howard Wolfson and Terry McAuliffe managed to keep alive the illusion that there was still a Democratic contest after mid-March 2008.
Santorum, needless to say, is neither blessed with Clinton’s celebrity nor her campaign’s PR wizardry. But the former Pennsylvania senator has a far stronger argument. The reason the Clinton-Obama analogy breaks down is because of the more leisurely pace of the current campaign calendar. At this point in 2008, more than 80 percent of the Democratic delegates had been selected and Pennsylvania was the only remaining major-state primary. This time around, not only have the three largest states not voted, but also only 45 percent of the GOP delegates (Associated Press numbers) have been selected.
As a result, I am baffled why the press was so zealous about covering meaningless contests like the August 2011 Iowa Straw Poll, but so impatient when actual hard-fought primaries stretch into April. Have we reached the point when a presidential campaign only feels real if the candidates are caught up in the reality-show drama of TV debates with smack-downs and oops moments? Do a lack of debates plus a lack of charismatic candidates add up to a late March news blackout?