AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2012

Political Journalism: Picking the Winner While the Game’s Still Going On   

Weds., January 25, 2012

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

For many months, if you were following the coverage of the battle for the Republican presidential nomination, you knew, really knew, that the prize was going to be awarded to Mitt Romney.

Romney's experience, his massive war chest, his superior organization, his establishment credentials made him the overwhelming favorite against a colorful crowd of flawed competitors.

An October 22 column by the New York Times' Ross Douthat titled "The Inevitable Nominee" perfectly captured the consensus. "[B]arring an unprecedented suspension of the laws of American politics, Mitt Romney has this thing wrapped up," Douthat wrote.

Romney's "historic" sweep of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary did nothing to shake the certainty.

"The Republican party awoke to the reality that the nomination is very nearly" Romney's, Time's Adam Sorensen wrote after the votes were counted in the Granite State.

"Mitt Romney's win in the New Hampshire primary makes his nomination almost inevitable," wrote The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn.

Today, things don't look quite so inevitable. Turns out Romney actually lost to Rick Santorum in Iowa. Then he got his clock cleaned by the twice-buried Newt Gingrich in South Carolina last Saturday. Now, there's a ferocious battle taking place in Florida in advance of Tuesday's primary.

Two weeks ago, Romney led Gingrich there by 22 points, according to a Rasmussen poll. Now Gingrich is ahead by nine.

Of course, Romney might still prevail. His campaign is built for the long haul. But his serious vulnerabilities are obvious, and there is a lot of campaigning still to be done. So why were political writers so determined to declare a TKO so early in the fight?

Overreacting to the momentum of the moment is hardly a new phenomenon. After news of Gingrich's heavy spending at Tiffany's emerged, and he went on a Mediterranean cruise with his wife rather than hit the trail, and his staff quit, the former House speaker was declared DOA.

But Gingrich, like his frenemy from bygone days, Bill Clinton, is a bad man to write off. By December, he was the frontrunner in three of the first four states to vote. After a brutal pummeling by a super Pac supporting Romney, however, Gingrich collapsed in Iowa and once again was kicked to the curb.

He just didn't stay there very long.

There are numerous precedents from the past. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton was considered "inevitable" for many months. Then, after Barack Obama beat her in Iowa, she was counted out, until, one week later, she prevailed in New Hampshire ("Stunner in N.H.: Clinton defeats Obama," msnbc.com declared). A long war of attrition ensued.

The media have been embarrassed so many times on this score, but nothing ever changes. The pundits leap to overreact to each hiccup.

It's not that the judgments come out of nowhere. There were (and still are) many good reasons to think it will be Romney v. Obama. After Gingrich's staff bailed in June in the wake of the Tiffany's debacle, it was hard to picture him in the winner's circle.

The problem is that, too often, political journalists make definitive judgments prematurely. It's as if sportswriters had written their game stories when the Philadelphia Eagles led the San Francisco 49ers 23-3 with 9:30 left in the third quarter last October 2. It made perfect sense to assume that the Birds would bring this one home.

But they didn't, ignominiously collapsing and losing the game 24-23. Blown leads happen all the time in sports. And in politics.

Life is messy and, often, unpredictable. It doesn't unspool itself logically. Things happen, sometimes crazy things.

One of the major factors contributing to the rush to judgment is cable news. It's on all the time, and it's a competitive world that doesn't reward shades of gray. It wants answers, and it wants them now.

The Internet, with its endless struggle for eyeballs, also places a premium on the catchy. Which one sounds more alluring, "Romney is inevitable" or "Romney seems to have a pretty good chance of winning the nomination"?

Once the received wisdom begins to take shape, it's hard to resist.

But resist we should. Because the constant stream of premature if not erroneous conclusions, the dizzying whipsawing, does nothing but diminish the already sagging credibility of the news media. And why should a reader, viewer or surfer believe the latest pronouncement, given the media's track record?

Backing off a little would be a change we can believe in. Just don't expect it to happen anytime soon.