How much campaign coverage is a self-fulfilling prophecy?
As a political journalist familiar with how the press behaves, I agree with the New York Times when it reported, after Rick Santorum's Tuesday night sweep in Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota, that it "could scramble the dynamic of the Republican race." But part of why I think that's true is the certainty that newspapers, network anchors, cable news pundits, and Web journalists will all say so. What few outlets typically acknowledge is the degree to which their own coverage and the stuff published or broadcast by their competitors are a primary mechanism by which the scrambling takes place! It is easy to imagine a political press that embraced different, equally plausible conventions -- that delegates are what matters, for example, and that only naive ignoramuses would attribute importance to the results of a race with few or no delegates.
That understanding would cause the press to confer marginal importance on Iowa or New Hampshire. Wouldn't the end result be the emergence of a very different campaign, and perhaps even a different outcome?
So far, this primary season has confounded journalistic expectations.
As Dave Weigel puts it:
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."
Given the frequency with which speculative analysis is wrong, it would probably be a good thing if journalists engaged in less of it. But horse race analysis isn't going away: readers want it, journalists want to produce it, and no style of journalism will ever end when both of those things are true.
The reform I'd suggest is for journalists to be less coy about what's going on. It isn't unduly meta to fully acknowledge the role the press plays in campaigns, even if doing so is a bit awkward. For example, The New York Times writes that many in the Republican establishment were urging GOP activists to fall in line behind Mitt Romney, but voters in three states refused to do so.