Do shorter campaigns mean less scrutiny?

There’s a lengthy piece in Politico today comparing the 2012 presidential campaign cycle with other recent national races — from the media’s perspective. Reporters seem to agree that 2008 was “the greatest presidential race they ever covered,” and 2012 is off to a much slower start than anyone expected.

But the relevant angle to this for the rest of us has to do with candidate scrutiny. As the article noted, “By this point in 2007, the major national newspapers and newswires had already assigned reporters to the leading candidates — something that largely hasn’t happened yet this time around.”

I can understand why this is. Candidates have been slow to announce, and many major contenders looked like they would run, only to dip their toe in the water and run in the opposite direction. There haven’t been any real debates, and there are still some credible names out there who haven’t announced their plans. It puts news organizations in an awkward position when it comes to coverage decisions.

Nevertheless, at this point in the cycle, reporters are generally digging into every word a candidate has ever spoken, every vote ever cast, every bill ever signed, every dollar ever spent, etc. By the time Super Tuesday rolls around, voters don’t know everything about the candidates, but they’ve certainly been subjected to some fairly thorough scrutiny over the course of a full year.

The contrast, then, between this cycle and the last isn’t a positive development.

Four years ago at this time, the Times’s chief political writer and reporters assigned to the top two candidates in each party were fully engaged. Right now, Jeff Zeleny is doing most of the heavy lifting by himself, writing introductory pieces for all candidates and racking up several dozen trips to Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Jim Rutenberg moved to politics full time only a few weeks ago, and Michael Shear, covering the campaign on the web, balances it with reporting on the White House and Washington.

The Washington Post has a similar deployment, with Dan Balz out front, flanked by Karen Tumulty and Chris Cillizza. Amy Gardner and Phil Rucker have also been on the campaign trail, but so far there have been no clear candidate assignments in contrast to 2007.

The Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News are in a similar position. Even though 2008 was the first time Bloomberg News covered a presidential race in a robust way, even that relative newcomer was committing reporters to candidates by this point in the last cycle.

For candidates hoping for less scrutiny, this is good news — but only for them.

NBC’s Chuck Todd said, “Personally, I think longer campaigns are better. They put candidates through tests. Some of them are trivial, some of them are serious, but over time, it’s the best way to winnow the field. Short campaigns always concern me. You get a candidate who can take advantage of knee-jerk voter anger over a short period of time, and all of a sudden, you find out something you didn’t know about them.”