A Quandary For the Punditocracy

There is, as you may know, a Republican presidential primary coming up in Louisiana on Saturday. Three polls have been taken there this month, including two in the last few days; all of them show Rick Santorum ahead. Indeed, with Newt Gingrich, who is out of money, fading into an increasingly irrelevant third place, Santorum could win by a non-trivial margin, given the demographics of the state.

Now most pundits, myself included, reached the conclusion Tuesday night if not earlier that Mitt Romney’s nomination–barring the usual disclaimers about what would happen if Mitt does something crazy instead of merely dumb or it turns out this paragon of family values has fathered five kids out of wedlock or smoked reefer in the Massachusetts governor’s mansion–is a certainty. The main questions now are whether and when his rivals drop out without being bodily hauled off the campaign trail, and if they (or more specifically Santorum) do stay in, how long it takes Romney to clinch it all. These questions are not purely academic, since they have an impact on all sorts of things that affect the general election, from finances to message framing to Mitt Romney’s relationship with surly and stubborn conservatives.

So the situation presents a question for the punditocracy: how seriously do we take contests like Louisiana, and how much do we write about it? Do we just plow on acting as though it ain’t over until it’s formally over, with breathless coverage of the seventeen primaries between now and June 5, when California and New Jersey will likely put an end to Republican misery if it hasn’t already happened? I don’t think so. Do we cover it sloppily, or when we can’t think of anything else to write about (mainly a question for us hard-pressed news cycle bloggers who have to post constantly)? That doesn’t sound very professional. Do we just write about the stuff that strikes us as interesting–noting it, say, if Santorum finally manages to win the Catholic vote somewhere, as he might in Louisiana? Do we ignore the whole mess, lashing ourselves to the mast like Odysseus in the land of the Sirens and refusing to acknowledge all the noise? That seems a bit extreme.

I don’t have any idea how the MSM folk are planning to behave going forward. I’m guessing they’ll have no inhibition about cutting away from primary coverage if a Hollywood celebrity gets arrested. The bigger question is whether they’ll cut away from celebrity coverage to report primary results.

There’s not a lot of recent precedent for a campaign that’s sort of over but lingers near the edge of the grave for weeks or maybe months. Yes, there was a debate in 2008 about whether the Obama/Clinton contest was truly over once he secured a prohibitive lead in the delegate count, but what with a big batch of superdelegates, Clinton’s remarkably strong residual strength at the polls, and major delegate rules challenges, it seemed foolish to stop covering it all until Clinton conceded.

What do you folks think should be the practice here and elsewhere? Let me know in the comments thread if you feel strongly about it. I may even put up a poll at some point. My definition of “political news” here includes, but is not limited to, what people are generally talking about whether I think it’s particularly significant or not. So that will probably be my rule of thumb.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.