Are We Writing Off Rick Too Fast?

As has been the case for a while now, Rick Santorum is fighting a two-front war against Mitt Romney and against the widespread belief of the media and opinion-leaders alike that Romney’s got the 2012 GOP presidential nomination all but locked, barring something really odd happening.

Veteran campaign reporter Walter Shapiro, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review’s blog, doesn’t address the opinion-leader consensus dissing Santorum, but does think the press is essentially “disenfranchising” future GOP primary and caucus participants by calling the race for Romney:

The problem with such glib media pronouncements is that Republican voters perversely think that their primary choices still matter. In Illinois, according to the exit polls, two thirds of the Republican voters said it was more important that their favored candidate prevail than the GOP race end soon. Despite the air of finality in the media coverage after Illinois, 70 percent of Louisiana Republicans preferred victory for their chosen candidate to a premature conclusion to the GOP primaries. It is a safe bet that Republicans in such major primary states as New York (April 24), Pennsylvania (ditto), Texas (May 29) and California (June 5) are not looking forward to being effectively disenfranchised by the time they vote.

Shapiro goes on to examine, without reaching any particular conclusions, possible reasons for the media’s alleged “Mitt-is-it rush,” from flagging ratings for campaign coverage to Santorum’s own theory that campaign reporters are just tired of living in motels.

But the rush-to-judgment premise requires some scrutiny as well as respect.

You get the sense that both Santorum and Shapiro think there is something inherently unethical about judgments of the contest that go beyond hard delegate counts. Shapiro even calls it disenfranchising.

Personally, I don’t think GOP voters will be discouraged from doing whatever they want to do just because Nate Silver or First Read or Political Animal says the race is effectively over. The job of political writers is to describe what is happening based on all the available evidence, which includes not just primary and caucus results but trends, money, elite opinion, and rudimentary math. Yes, it is possible that Republican voters in places like Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware and New York will give Santorum victories next month. But everything we know about the appeal and the financial resources of the candidates and the demographic makeup of these states strongly suggests otherwise. When Nate Silver more or less called the race for Romney on March 9, he assumed Santorum would win in Wisconsin (which votes next Tuesday) and in his home state of Pennsylvania (April 24). The two most recent polls now show Romney moving to a comfortable lead in WI, and another shows him catching up with Santorum in PA.

When I made my own “it’s all but over” statement at TNR after Illinois voted, I did not know that Sen. Jim DeMint was about to send a giant signal to Santorum and to Newt Gingrich that it was time to wrap things up. Based on my own understanding, developed over an extended period of time, about how the conservative movement, Santorum’s only source of elite backing, operates, I think that was a very big deal, more important to Romney than two or three primary wins. It’s the sort of thing that gets processed through right-wing opinion-leader circles and eventually has a large impact on donors and voters. Could I be wrong about that? Sure, wouldn’t be the first time; after all, I was one of the writers who figured Mitt would not be able to overcome his RomneyCare problem. But should I ignore the information at hand and just stare at hard delegate counts based on the misimpression that this blog is a public utility that owes it to Republican primary voters to protect their role in the process? Nah, don’t think so.

Truth is, as someone who is rather fond of Barack Obama, it would suit me just fine if Rick Santorum won the GOP presidential nomination. As a political blogger, I’d be delighted to cover breathlessly every Republican contest up to the very moment Romney has 1144 delegates signed, sealed and delivered–or beyond, since Santorum is talking about challenging delegate selection processes in Florida and Arizona. An “open convention” would be immense fun; I’d probably pay my own way to Tampa just to witness it.

Moreover, if the improbable occurs and Santorum suddenly starts attracting voters we have no particular reason to expect him to win, in states where he shouldn’t be competitive, I have no problem admitting I was wrong.

Let me be explicit about this: “Hey, Republican primary voters! Here’s your chance to annoy the media by doing something we didn’t expect! Go to it! Have a ball!”

Walter Shapiro’s correct that a herd mentality and a tendency to overrate conventional wisdom can lead political writers to jump to conclusions unwarranted by events. But not this time.

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.