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.