Campaign Crawlers

The Politics of Demoralization

Why do the media magnify Mitt's "inevitability" mantra?

By 3.26.12

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Before the polls closed Saturday night in Louisiana, I made two safe predictions: First, that Rick Santorum would win big in the state's Republican presidential primary and second, that the media (specifically including Fox News) would "immediately provide the Team Mitt spin, minimizing the significance of Santorum victory."

The first prediction actually proved to be an underestimate. Santorum did not merely "win big" in Louisiana, he won huge, exceeding all expectations. The Real Clear Politics average of Louisiana polls had shown him leading Mitt Romney by 13 points, and early exit polls indicated a similar margin of victory. No polling, however, had suggested the possibility that Santorum would win a massive blowout and not even his most ardent supporter had dared to dream the former Pennsylvania senator could carry Louisiana with a 22-point margin of victory and 49 percent of the vote. Furthermore, as one of his state coordinators pointed out Saturday night, if Santorum had gotten about 4,000 more votes to reach 51 percent, he would have automatically gotten all the delegates at stake in the primary. Three non-competitive candidates -- former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann -- got a combined total of nearly 3,800 votes. Santorum was close to scoring a shutout against Romney, even without considering the 16 percent of the Louisiana vote captured by another non-competitive candidate, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

Permit me to digress, dear reader, to ask: Is anyone so blind as to be unable to see that Gingrich's continued campaign now has no purpose other than to deprive Rick Santorum of a one-on-one shot at Romney? We need not resort to the language of psychology -- e.g., narcissism, delusions of grandeur, a possible tendency toward megalomania -- to say that Newt's campaign has been obviously doomed for weeks. If this was not obvious to everyone on "Super Tuesday" March 6, when Gingrich placed third in Tennessee and Oklahoma, it certainly should have been clear on March 13 when he lost Mississippi and Alabama. Along the way, Gingrich has also racked up numerous fourth-place finishes, even in Alaska where he might have been expected to get a boost from Sarah Palin's endorsement. In many closely contested states, including the crucial primaries Feb. 28 in Michigan and March 6 in Ohio, Gingrich has campaigned just enough to play the spoiler, preventing Santorum from consolidating conservative support and thereby enabling Romney to win narrow victories. And by his repeated criticisms of Santorum, Newt has helped poison the well, demonizing his rival in the eyes of many conservative Gingrich supporters. (Another easy prediction: Comments on this column will be flooded by embittered Gingrichites who have talked themselves into believing that Santorum is an illegitimate usurper, somehow unfairly depriving Newt of his rightful place as the final choice of the "Anybody But Mitt" movement.) Gingrich and his supporters apparently have forgotten that Newt spent all of January and February insisting that stopping the Massachusetts moderate was a vital necessity, requiring conservatives to unite their efforts behind a single anti-Romney candidate.

Now that conservative are indeed beginning to unite (Santorum beat Gingrich by more than 3-to-1 in Louisiana), Newt and his supporters seem surprisingly amenable to accepting the GOP Establishment's "Roll Over for Romney" consensus, rather than joining Santorum's conservative crusade. This stubborn reluctance of Gingrich to read the handwriting on the wall was perhaps predictable to anyone who has studied the habits of oversized egos, a familiar quantity in politics. Even more predictable, however, was the media's eagerness to accept and promote the "inevitability" mantra that for weeks has been quite nearly the only argument Republicans have heard in favor of Romney's candidacy.

Having campaigned for president almost non-stop since 2007, Mr. Inevitable was always the Republican heir apparent for 2012, given the GOP's longstanding custom of nominating the "It's His Turn" candidate, second place in the primary campaign being practically a guarantee for the nomination next time around. Ronald Reagan lost to Gerald Ford in 1976, George H.W. Bush lost to Reagan in 1980, John McCain lost to George W. Bush in 2000, and in each case, the second-place finisher went on to be the next Republican nominee. (The party's 1996 nominee, Bob Dole, was also a re-run, having finished last in the 1980 primary campaign. Many conservatives felt that Dole's '96 running mate, Jack Kemp, had missed his shot at the White House by refusing to mount a primary challenge to the elder Bush in either 1988 or '92.) By virtue of being runner-up to John McCain four years ago, then, Mitt began the 2012 campaign as the pre-emptive favorite.

In retrospect, the ups and downs of Romney's "Flavor of the Month" rivals over the past year look almost like an orchestrated spectacle, as if the media and the pollsters had conspired with GOP insiders to create a buzz of artificial excitement around what otherwise might have been a dull and predictable Republican primary campaign. Now, however, the media message seems to be, "Fun time is over. Act like sensible grown-up Republicans and vote for this rich guy of dubious ideological sincerity whom the party establishment wants to shove down your throats." To do otherwise, it is implied, is to be immature, unrealistic and unserious because (the sensible grown-up Republicans assure us during their frequent appearances on TV panel discussions) Romney is the most "electable" candidate. Skepticism toward this "electability" argument is dismissed by Mitt's media minions in tut-tutting tones, and woe unto the conservative who predicts that Romney will most likely repeat the pattern of previous establishment favorites and lose in November. The sensible grown-up Republicans who have endorsed Romney condemn such predictions as treasonous pessimism -- giving aid and comfort to the Democratic enemy -- whereas by contrast the Romneyites expect their own predictions of Mitt's "inevitability" to be accepted as Neutral Objective Facts. (And don't you dare accuse them of bias!)

Between his inevitability and his electability, Romney's advocates would have you believe their man is an unstoppable electoral juggernaut, a lead-pipe cinch to become the next President of the United States, and they've managed to sell that proposition with the assistance of journalists who seem suspiciously eager to ignore all evidence to the contrary. So when Santorum won his 11th victory Saturday in Louisiana by a margin much larger than anyone had predicted, the media went out of their way to pretend that this result was neither surprising nor significant. Fox News actually interrupted coverage of Santorum's victory speech in order to permit their reporter Carl Cameron to provide the pro-Romney angle on the Louisiana vote. Sunday morning, Fox brought on Romney surrogate John Sununu and gave him 10 minutes of airtime to pour cold water on any notion that Santorum's 22-point margin of victory in Louisiana might portend any meaningful revival of conservative resistance to Mitt.

Santorum's supporters have complained for weeks that Fox News is in the tank for Romney, an accusation angrily denied by employees of the "Fair and Balanced" network. Their attitude seems to be that it is simply a fact that Mitt is as inevitable as Sununu and his other surrogates say he is, and thus they automatically reject the possibility that Romney's surprisingly large defeat in Louisiana -- twenty-two freaking points! -- could signify yet another Santorum surge. The Romney campaign has spoon-fed reporters and commentators a steady diet of delegate-count projections showing their candidate with an insuperable advantage. Very few reporters, however, have taken seriously the Santorum campaign's contention that Team Mitt is both overestimating its share of delegates already won and prematurely counting delegates as hatched chickens in contests to come. Whether the Romney camp's estimations of delegates are accurate or not, they convey the impression of a contest already over, although Mitt is still nearly 600 delegates shy of the "magic number" majority of 1,144. The delegate math functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy, and Fox News has been prophesying Santorum's doom since late February.

Just as Santorum supporters suspect Fox of bias, so too do they see Matt Drudge as squarely in the pro-Romney camp. They cite as an example last week's ginned-up controversy that erupted when, during a speech in Texas, Santorum gave an awkward version of his oft-reiterated argument that the moderate Romney would be ill-positioned to provide a "clear contrast" to Obama. This gaffe got major play at the Drudge Report, creating the false impression that Santorum had said he would personally prefer Obama to Romney. Santorum went on Fox News the next afternoon and, in an interview with Neil Cavuto, vehemently insisted that he was the victim of an "absurd" and "laughable" distortion, "the hatchet job of all time." A week earlier, Drudge gave similarly sensational treatment to a Daily Caller story about Santorum's stated goal of "vigorous" enforcement of federal laws against pornographic obscenity. The article was factually accurate, but misled many readers into believing that Santorum had suddenly announced a plan for an anti-porn crackdown. In fact, the Daily Caller article was based on a position paper that had been on Santorum's campaign website for weeks, and the article ignored the obviously relevant fact that both Romney and Gingrich had in January joined Santorum in endorsing the anti-pornography platform of a conservative group called Morality in Media. Any reporter who can extract a couple of "controversial" sentences from an hour-long Santorum speech is virtually guaranteed a Drudge headline, offering an incentive for the kind of "gotcha" coverage that makes it seem Santorum's entire campaign has been nothing but gaffes and blunders.

Thus do the media portray Santorum as both hapless and hopeless. Voters who know only what they learn from TV news coverage of the campaign might be amazed that a candidate depicted as incapable of speaking a coherent sentence has nonetheless managed to win 11 states and 273 delegates. And their amazement would turn to outright disbelief if you told them that, despite all they've seen and heard about Romney's overwhelming lead in delegates, it is still not certain that Mitt is really so inevitable. Yet even a victory as sizeable as Santorum's Louisiana win is treated by reporters as a minor incident on the road to Romney's nomination. The New York Times sniffed that the result in Louisiana is "unlikely to change the dynamics of the race." Two days before Saturday's primary, the Washington Post contended that Louisiana could be "more fertile ground for Romney than any of the six Southern states where he has lost to this point." After Romney instead suffered his biggest loss yet, the Post felt obliged to note in the lead paragraph of its story on the Louisiana vote that Santorum's "odds of beating Mitt Romney in the overall delegate race appear slim," later adding, "Romney's other victories, especially a big win Tuesday in the Illinois primary, appear to have cemented his status as the likely nominee." To these journalists, a 12-point margin for Romney in Illinois was a "big win," whereas Santorum's 22-point margin in Louisiana was meaningless. (Republican voters who don't cooperate with the consensus of the political press corps are manifestly inferior, you see.)

Whatever the intent of the media's repetition of Mitt's "inevitability" mantra, the effect is to discourage support for Santorum, to demoralize conservatives by telling them that the fight for the Republican nomination is already over, and to force them into a premature acquiescence in the putative triumph of Romney, despite the fact that this allegedly more electable candidate has so far gotten less than 40 percent of the vote in GOP primaries and caucuses. If you suspect that the intent of this demoralizing message is the same as the effect, you are certainly not alone. Nor are you alone if you remain determined to resist the media's demand for an unconditional surrender to Romney. There is at least one other conservative willing and able to keep up the fight, and his name is Rick Santorum.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.