Political reporters make for lousy gravediggers. Find a primary, pick a day, and I can point you to a story pronouncing the campaign “over” or “almost over” or over, pending the judgment of a proverbial Fat Lady.
Let’s make it easy and start last month. On Jan. 10, as Romney was winning New Hampshire, NPR quoted a Republican strategist who counted the margins and pronounced the race “over.” On Jan. 18, the Los AngelesTimes informed us that South Carolina’s primary “could essentially end” the Santorum and Gingrich campaigns. Two days later, NBC News told us that a Romney win in the first southern primary would make him “the de facto nominee.”
When Romney lost, we got pre-Florida primary headlines like “Can Mitt Romney recover from his South Carolina ‘disaster?’ ” Days later, Howard Kurtz was tap-tapping about the “distinct possibility” that the media would “bury Newt Gingrich for the third time” in Florida. No one was talking about Rick Santorum until yesterday, when the Wall Street Journal saluted Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri for “puncturing Mitt Romney's claim to be the unstoppable front-runner.”
My old colleague Jack Shafer once praised “horse race” coverage of presidential politics. “Every political reporter I know,” he wrote, “yearns to cover a deadlocked presidential convention.” It’s true. So why has every single primary spawned dull, topsy-turvy—and ultimately wrong—stories about how it “Marked the End” of one candidate or another? Tuesday’s caucus-goers have done us a real solid, forcing the media to confront the truth: The Republican race will last until April at the very least. And it’s in everybody’s interest—Candidates! Voters! Reporters! Whatever David Gergen is!—that it drags on that long or longer.
We know the race will last to April thanks to pure, heartless algebra. The 2012 Republican nominee will need to win 1,144 delegates. The number of delegates semi-officially pledged to candidates as I type this out: 161. The number of delegates that will be pledged by the end of Super Tuesday, one month from now: 662. Rick Santorum could take every single delegate away from Mitt Romney (Good luck in Massachusetts!) and be barely halfway to the nomination.
It feels slower than the last primary. Because it’s much, much slower. A catastrophic and months-long leap-frog competition forced 21 states into 2008 Super Tuesday primaries or caucuses. By Feb. 5, 2008, 1,069 of the GOP’s delegates—41 percent of the total—had been chosen. It was a fluke, no one wanted it to happen again, but it turned out like a childhood trauma in reverse. So much fun was had, the “this can wrap up in a hurry” concept stuck around.
But it can’t wrap up in a hurry. In his much-derided Saturday night press conference, as he shot beady stares at reporters and mocked them for their questions, Newt Gingrich explained exactly what his strategy was. “Our commitment,” he said, “is to seek to find a series of victories which by the end of the Texas primary will leave us about at parity with Governor Romney and from that point forward to see if we can't actually win the nomination.”
It might seem far-fetched, but it’s actually possible. The reverse—Romney somehow scaring everyone out of the race before the South votes—is impossible. Three Southern states vote on Super Tuesday, and three more go during the month of March. Only when Texas votes, on April 3, will so many delegates have been awarded that the also-rans might not be able to catch up.
“We have an Arizona debate and two more debates after that,” argued Gingrich’s sarcasm-loving spokesman R.C. Hammond. “Twenty percent of the delegates are decided in March. We go from the March contests into the state of Texas where we have the endorsement of—oh, that’s right, the governor!”
If this election was always going to drag, why is every primary covered like a championship football game with a public execution at halftime? This is a good question. The knock on political reporting is usually that it reads too much like sports journalism—winner, loser, game change, weather could affect the outcome. Sports reporters don’t cover the first two games of a season and declare a Super Bowl winner. (I should say most of them don’t.) The political press has been assuming Mitt Romney’s money and organization will eventually wrap things up for him, and so any early victories make the wrap-up come faster.
This isn’t doing Romney any favors. As the Tuesday numbers came in, Politico’s embed Reid Epstein pointed out that Romney had done no “avails”—free-for-all media rap sessions—in Nevada, Minnesota, or Colorado. In general, Romney’s done fewer events and more fundraising than his rivals. He spent 19 days in Iowa, much of that right before the caucus. Rick Santorum spent 105 days there, Newt Gingrich spent 64, and Ron Paul spent 47. Admire Romney’s vote-per-visit ratio, or compliment his largely gaffe-free early state campaign, but he’s been having an easy ride.
“It’s good to have guys running against you as foils,” says Republican strategist Mike Murphy, who’s worked for Romney in the past. “If I were him I wouldn't mind losing a caucus or two to reposition myself for the general election.”
Last night, he lost two—Colorado and Minnesota—along with the Missouri primary. He’d won both Colorado and Minnesota in 2008. Oh, sure, the turnout was pathetic. In Minnesota, a state where 2,910,369 votes were cast in the Obama-McCain race, less than 50,000 Republicans showed up for caucuses. But Romney had won more than one-half that number in 2008. He didn’t turn out as many people. The campaign confidently says that he didn’t bother, because there weren’t delegates at stake. I remember the last time a campaign was in that position: 2008, when John McCain’s campaign locked away the nomination, leaving Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama free to fight and organize in states Obama ended up winning.
State Republican parties could have moved up these primaries. They didn’t. Republican voters could have fallen in unconditional love with a candidate. They haven’t. No one can bottle this race up. It will drag on as long as the candidates, Foster Friess, Sheldon Adelson, and Peter Thiel want it to drag on. Gravediggers, put down your shovels!