The following exchange took place on the MSNBC program Morning Joe on Monday, January 2d:
Joe Scarborough to Time Magazine's Mark Halperin: "Do you think it's over if Mitt Romney wins Iowa?"
Halperin: "I think it is, Joe. ... If he wins Iowa, I think he will roll out of New Hampshire and I think he'll be in a strong position in South Carolina. ... It's perfect for Mitt Romney to have a crowded field in South Carolina."
That's right, kids. If polls are to be believed, about 25 percent of 20 percent of the registered Republicans in Iowa are going to select the next Republican nominee for President. That is, about 25,000 people will attend the Iowa Caucus tomorrow night and "stand" for Mitt Romney out of roughly 120,000 (maybe 130,000-140,000 if turnout is really high).
I follow politics pretty closely, which is to say, I read a lot of newspapers, listen to the chattering class on cable TV and have about half-a-dozen of the most popular political websites and blogs bookmarked and for the life of me, I have still not gotten my head around why it is that the mainstream media seems so invested in the elevation of Willard Mitt Romney to the Republican nomination when a single vote has not been cast.
I usually chalk it up to lazy journalism and a pack mentality that dissuades reporters from splitting off from the inside-the-beltway conventional wisdom. Reporters have become less and less interested in actual *reporting* and more focused on "horse race" aspects of Presidential politics. The news cycle, which is essentially non-stop at this point, acts as a further disincentive to drill down into candidate records, opting instead to focus like a laser on the latest perceived slip up or impolitic comment on the campaign trail.
Conventional wisdom like "there are three tickets out of Iowa" exist for no other reason than it is just that - conventional. Nevermind that, as Gail Collins noted, the Iowa caucus turnout will be roughly the population of Pomona, California or that the Republican primary season apportions its delegates in the early contests, virtually ensuring that no one candidate will end January with a meaningful lead in delegates. The mainstream media has fed the narrative equivalent of "heads Mitt wins, tails his opponents lose." To wit, Halperin reflects the conventional wisdom that an Iowa win for Romney essentially ends the contest, while a narrow Romney loss is not damaging because of the default belief that he and he alone is able to run a nationwide campaign.
I think this view is both non-sensical and anti-democratic, and I'm a a Democrat! While the media has shown token interest in the fact that Romney has not grown his support in Iowa over 2008 (where he lost by 9 points (35-24) to Governor Mike Huckabee), that has not stopped them from feeding the narrative of a victory with the same (or lower) support as four years ago will be a resounding triumph. Moreover, the ebb and flow of primary opponents to Romney indicates a deep vein of hostility toward his candidacy and a searching, by the conservatives within the Republican party, for a viable alternative to him.
The other underreported story of the campaign thus far is the modest fundraising that these candidates have generated versus their predecessors in 2008, a year when Republican enthusiasm was far lower after eight years of George W. Bush. While some of that money may be flowing to the so-called "Super PACs" that are themselves becoming a story (and a political force) in 2012, the reality is also that there is a lot of money sitting on the sidelines looking to be directed at someone other than Mitt Romney. It's certainly plausible to think that significant dollars will flow to Santorum, Gingrich or Perry as the campaign continues and, as noted above, delegates are apportioned in these early races, so there is less incentive to get out based on mathematical inability to collect the delegates needed to win the nomination. Also, big states, particularly in the south and west, loom in the future - terrain that is far more hospitable to the more socially conservative candidates in the race.
Finally, the other reason I don't put a lot of credence on the inevitability of Mitt Romney (my prior post - http://scarylawyerguy.blogspot.com/2011/10/bush-2016.html - notwithstanding) is that he appears to be a candidate who suffers from being liked less the more people see of him. My favorite Mitt Romney statistic is that his name has been on a ballot (primary, caucus, general election) 22 times since 1994 and of those 22 elections, he's won 5 and lost 17. If you're scoring at home, that's a less than .250 winning percentage. Simply put, there is something about this guy that average voters in the Republican party simply do not like.
While it is true that Republicans tend to go for the establishment candidate, the 2012 Republican electorate is more conservative than the 2008 version that grudgingly went for McCain, in part because of the "winner take all" nature of the early primaries, and establishment momentum from New Hampshire (where Romney lost by 5 points and now has to contend with Governor Jon Huntsman, who is attempting to rekindle the McCain model and may hurt Romney), South Carolina (where Romney finished 4th, behind even the somnolent Senator Fred Thompson) and Florida (where Romney lost to McCain by 5 points). In short, the primary calendar poses the same obstacles to Romney that they did in 2008; however, here, he is banking on his ability to raise and spend money in greater amounts than his opponents. While that might be true, it is also true that Romney has been unscathed by negative campaigning thus far, something sure to change, regardless of how tomorrow's caucuses turn out.
Back-to-back debates next weekend and the inevitable scrutiny of Romney's weaknesses that have thus far been ignored by the media will also pose challenges to his campaign's preference to focus on the former Governor's inevitability. The fact that his support will remain flat in Iowa, that he may underperform in New Hampshire and lose South Carolina will, eventually, force the narrative to one that questions whether Romney is as inevitable as his campaign wants everyone to believe he is. At that point, the race will truly begin.