The front-page story in the March 18th New York Times seemed a case of political life imitating art. A revival of The Best Man—Gore Vidal’s 1960 ode to the drama of a brokered convention—was in previews on Broadway. And there above the fold in the Sunday Times, Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg were reporting that suddenly political insiders were contemplating the serious possibility that front-runner Mitt Romney would arrive at the Tampa Convention short of the 1,144 delegates needed for nomination. The Times even used in its subhead the catnip-for-reporters phrase, “Open Convention.”
Just eight days later, the curtain slammed down on these second-ballot fantasies. Reflecting the new campaign-trail orthodoxy, Politico ran a major story Monday by Jonathan Martin saying, in effect, “It’s all over now, Baby Blue.” Martin portrayed Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum as anti-Romney “hecklers, rather than competitors, with little money to even air cable-TV ads, increasingly far-fetched scenarios for going to Tampa and shrill rhetoric.” For The Washington Post on Tuesday, Chris Cillizza wrote an online piece with this the-end-is-nigh opening sentence, “The Republican primary race has reached—or, at the very least is well on its way to reaching—its conclusion.” About all that was missing was the ritual playing of “Taps.”
The verdict seems fitting for Gingrich, whose political epitaph I wrote for The New Republic after he finished a weak third in Saturday’s Louisiana primary. But what has happened to Santorum since March 18th to consign him to oblivion? How can he be fighting his way to Tampa one day and yesterday’s man the next?
There were no dramatic reversals in the mid-March voting. Only the terminally naive should have been surprised by the results of the Illinois and Louisiana primaries. Romney won Illinois (where only 29 percent of GOP voters call themselves “very conservative”) by a comfortable double-digit margin. But Santorum came roaring back in Louisiana (49 percent “very conservative”) with a 22-point landslide. If the back-to-back primaries changed anything, they stripped Gingrich of his last fragile claim to be the real conservative alternative to Romney. So, in theory, Santorum is finally set up with an unobstructed shot at Romney.
The only problem is that the cable networks and much of the political press corps seems determined to start pulling out the tent pegs while Santorum is still performing under the Big Top. Without new characters or visual effects more dramatic than close-ups of Etch-a-Sketch screens, television has finally grown bored with the inter-Mitt-able GOP race. As Howard Kurtz reported in The Daily Beast, “At the cable news networks…the word is out that the presidential campaign is sending the ratings south.” Belated endorsements like Jeb Bush going for Romney nearly two months after the Florida primary do not have much relevance to the voters, but they do send a message to sophisticated reporters that the fix is in.
The day after Romney won Illinois and Puerto Rico (not exactly a political bellwether), New York Times polling guru Nate Silver wrote an online piece entitled, “G.O.P. Nomination Becoming a One-Man Race.” Taking as gospel the Associated Press delegate count (more about that later), Silver declared, “We’re getting close to the point where it might take a major revelation for Mr. Romney to lose.” Rather than brandishing the innards of polling data and concocting new political projection models, Silver mostly based his argument on indicators like the betting site Intrade (which gave Santorum a 1.5 percent chance of victory in Tampa) and conventional wisdom assumptions (“Nor does Mr. Santorum appear to possess the ability to control the media narrative”).
The problem with such glib media pronouncements is that Republican voters perversely think that their primary choices still matter. In Illinois, according to the exit polls, two thirds of the Republican voters said it was more important that their favored candidate prevail than the GOP race end soon. Despite the air of finality in the media coverage after Illinois, 70 percent of Louisiana Republicans preferred victory for their chosen candidate to a premature conclusion to the GOP primaries. It is a safe bet that Republicans in such major primary states as New York (April 24), Pennsylvania (ditto), Texas (May 29) and California (June 5) are not looking forward to being effectively disenfranchised by the time they vote.
So why are campaign reporters suddenly so eager to anoint Romney and devote more than four months to (be still my beating heart) non-stop vice-presidential speculation? Campaigning in Wisconsin Saturday, Santorum offered his own theory to supporters as he referred to his traveling press corps: “They’re all trying to go home, get off the road and stop writing about this thing. They’re all tired.”
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?
Rick Santorum knows better than most how inadvertently unfair press coverage of the primaries can be. Until two weeks before he won the January 3 Iowa caucuses, Santorum had never scored above 10 percent in any of the three dozen prior statewide polls. As a result, the former two-term Pennsylvania senator received about as much 2011 media attention as a presidential candidate running on the Prohibition Party line. I plead guilty to being one of those who airily dismissed Santorum’s chances. Writing about an August 2011 podium clash for The New Republic, I snarkily concluded, “Rick Santorum and Herman Cain also debated—and are purportedly running for president.”
Make no mistake, Rick Santorum is still running for president for real. And with at least 55 percent of the GOP Convention delegates still up for grabs, the political press corps should remember its obligations to Republican voters who still crave a choice. And what I misguidedly wrote after that debate last August reminds me how often in politics the smug conventional wisdom can be grotesquely wrong.