Pundits Making The GOP Race Seem Closer Than It Is

If you listen to the punditocracy, you'd think that there's actually a doubt as to who the GOP nominee will be.

Mitt Romney cannot seem to please the pundits. After a big defeat in South Carolina, they say he “must win” Florida. He wins Florida, by a decisive margin no less and that apparently wasn’t good enough. When Rick Santorum rises in the polls again as the last “not Romney,” they say that he still hasn’t sealed the deal. He wins in Nevada, and they point to the fact that Santorum won three contests that didn’t award a single delegate. Michigan becomes a “must win” state for him and even when he wins both the Wolverine State and Arizona on the same night the pundits continue talking about Romney’s alleged inability to “close the deal,” all the while continuing fanciful talk about brokered conventions and late-entering candidates. Even this week, after Romney won six of the ten contests on Super Tuesday, the punditocracy continued  pushing the idea that the GOP race was not over, and that the nominee might not be known until the convention itself. Today, the press is likely to focus more on Rick Santorum’s expected win in the Kansas Caucuses rather than Romney’s wins in the Pacific Territory Caucuses, even though it’s possible that Romney will walk away with more delegates at the end of the day.

Typical of the post Super Tuesday analysis from the media is this from MSNBC First Read:

Why isn’t this GOP race over? If you’re Mitt Romney, you have to feel pretty frustrated. Political observers (including your authors here) told him he had to win his native state of Michigan, and he won Michigan. They told him he had to win Ohio, and he won there, too. And they set the bar at him obtaining a majority or a near-majority of delegates on Super Tuesday, and he achieved that as well. So why isn’t this race over? One possible answer: He’s getting penalized in the media and among Republicans for the competition he’s facing. It would be one thing if Romney were eking out narrow victories against Rick Perry or Tim Pawlenty, candidates with (at the time they were running) a serious campaign infrastructure and money or the potential for it. But it’s another thing to narrowly win against candidates who don’t have a true organization, who aren’t well funded, and who don’t have a bustling campaign headquarters. Romney, of course, doesn’t get to pick his opposition, and all he can do is continue to win. But he is certainly losing style points by barely beating Santorum in states like Michigan and Ohio — akin, as we’ve said before, to a top-ranked college football team winning a squeaker against an unranked opponent.

It’s all been enough to make Ross Douthat very frustrated:

Maybe the race “isn’t over” because the arbiters of media conventional wisdom — people, that is, like the editors of First Read — are determined to keep pretending that “style points” somehow count as much as delegates, in order to justify their continued insistence that Romney doesn’t actually have this thing wrapped up. This pretense does a disservice to their readers, who deserve to know the truth: While there are still scenarios in which the frontrunner ends up 50-100 delegates short of the magic number at the end of primary season, it would take a truly extraordinary turn of events (a huge scandal, say) to deny Romney the nomination at this point. The chaos-at-the-convention scenarios were almost plausible pre-Michigan, but they only made sense in a world where the leading candidate ended up well short of the necessary delegates. Now Romney is on track to win at least a clear plurality, and if he goes to the convention with over a thousand delegates, Jeb Bush isn’t going to sweep in and swipe the nomination out from under the man who won the most primary-season votes. It just … isn’t … going … to happen.

Douthat is, of course, correct. As I noted in my own Super Tuesday wrap-up post, the fact of the matter is that the odds that anyone other than Mitt Romney is going be able to win the 1144 delegates necessary to win the nomination are somewhere between slim and none. Moreover, as Douthat notes, in the unlikely event that Romney falls short of a majority but still has the overwhelmingly plurality of delegates, the idea that some outside candidate is going to be able to come in and steal the nomination is simply absurd. The same goes for the idea that someone with fewer delegates than Romney, be it Santorum or Gingrich, would somehow be able to win the nomination.

The most likely outcome in such a situation is something akin to what happened the last time the GOP faced a long, drawn-out, nomination process. In 1976, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan went into the convention in Kansas City with neither candidate having a majority of the delegates needed to win the nomination. Reagan tried to appeal to moderate Republicans by saying he would name Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker as his running mate. The move backfire however, and combined with Ford’s own efforts to win over uncommitted delegates, that was enough to put Ford over the top. Let’s say Romney ends up a few hundred delegates short in Tampa, does anyone doubt that there wouldn’t be a deal made somewhere that would put him over the top on the first ballot? I certainly don’t.

There’s another part of the pundit’s meme that is becoming tiresome, and it’s the idea that there’s something about Romney that makes him weak within his own party, and unable to close the deal. I’ve commented on the phenomenon myself. As the National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar notes, though, the reason for the length of the GOP contest this year has little to do with the candidates and everything to do with the rules:

For all the kvetching about Mitt Romney’s long slog to the Republican nomination, his struggles are as attributable to the party’s changed delegate allocation rules as his performance in the primaries and caucuses.

In fact, the Republican primary nomination has unfolded relatively predictably from the get-go, with Romney winning over white-collar voters, suburban Republicans, and more-moderate Republicans, but struggling among evangelicals, Tea Party backers and the working-class voters.  The pattern has repeated itself throughout the primary calendar.  The only surprise is that Rick Santorum has been the beneficiary of the dynamic, as opposed to a Southerner like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who looked like the most logical Romney alternative last summer.


In reality, the main reason why Romney doesn’t have this nomination close to locked up is because of the changed rules governing the nomination battle. Most states are awarding their delegates proportionally, rather than the winner-take-all system that most states adopted in the 2008 presidential contests.   Even if Romney won every state so far, he’d still be far short of the 1,140 delegates necessary to officially clinch the nomination.

That’s little consolation for the Romney campaign, which isn’t expecting to wrap things up until the spring. But it should give some much-needed perspective to much of the commentariat, which is treating Romney’s campaign as a historic failure.  In reality, he’s doing about as well as the Republican candidate with all the momentum at this time four years ago.

Kraushaar’s colleagues  Beth Reinhardt and George Condon have a longer piece about the impact that the new rules are having on the race that’s worth a look as well.  One of the ironies of the story behind them is the fact that one of the principal backers of the reforms to the nomination process that were adopted in 2010 was John Sunnnu, who has also been one of Mitt Romney’s most effective surrogates. One of the arguments being pushed by reform advocates two years ago was that a longer primary season would produce, in the end, a stronger nominee, with the 2008 Obama-Clinton contest being one of the most frequently cited pieces of evidence in favor of reform. Of course, that contest was in many ways a unique event in political history thanks in large part to the identity of the candidates. Additionally, it’s not at all clear that having the 2008 Democratic contest drag out until literally the very last possible contest actually did anything to help Barack Obama in the General Election beyond guaranteeing that he would be getting tons of free media coverage all spring. So, in large part, the GOP reformed their primary rules based on what was probably faulty evidence and it is those rules, not the candidates, that is largely responsible for way the race is playing out.

One other factor is helping to lengthen this process. Four years ago, a candidate like Newt Gingrich or even Rick Santorum would not have been able to last as long as they have because of their rather obvious money and organization problems. In fact, it’s hard to see how they would’ve ever been able to compete in the early primary states against a candidate like Romney who has been building up a ground operation for the past four years. With the rise of the SuperPAC’s, however, the financial pressures that used to force candidates to drop out early aren’t nearly as prevalent as they used to be. With a SuperPAC pushing its own media campaign, a campaign is able to spend more of its resources on organization, for example. They’ve changed the nature of campaigning in ways small and great, and one of them is arguably that they have allowed marginal candidates like Gingrich and Santorum to stay in the race far longer than they otherwise would have. So, in addition to the GOP rules you can thank Foster Fries and Shelly Adelson.

There’s one final consideration, of course. In a world of 365/24/7 cable news coverage of elections, and countless numbers of professional media organizations dedicating website space to covering politics all of these people need something to talk about. It’s far more interesting to talk about hypothetical brokered conventions than it is to dissect delegate math and explain how, in the end, Mitt Romney is indeed going to be the nominee of the Republican Party. There aren’t any more opportunities for pundits to write scripts for The West Wing, so spinning out fantasies about brokered conventions is pretty much the only thing they can do to keep things interesting and fill up the needlessly long hours taken up by political “coverage” on each of the three cable networks. What it isn’t, though, is anything closer to insightful political analysis.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. @Doug:

    Pretty much what you say in the last paragraph: their job is to have something to talk about. The bottom line is that the “news” is more about entertainment than it is about anything else and real analysis is not that entertaining.

  2. c.red says:

    While I agree with everything that you say, I think you leave a pretty major part unsaid: If this were a conventional two person race (or even three, since you can’t seem to get rid of Paul) then Mitt Romney would be in serious trouble. This would be a dead heat or he would even be losing right now, despite the massive spending gap and his organization.

  3. @c.red:

    Actually there’s been some polling that suggests you may not be right and that Santorum is no more likely to win in a head-to-head with Romney than he is in the current field

  4. c.red says:

    If it is not apparent, I dislike Mitt Romney. He is the 1% candidate and does not seem to understand that anyone else should get consideration. He comes across as dishonest and utterly lacking any sort of empathy. He has perpetuated every silly republican meme that exists and is advocating for policies that have obviously and spectacularly failed. He is everything that George W Bush was, except worse, and he has convinced me that he would be an even worse president.

    His only strength now is his opponents; a crank, a theocrat and the living embodiment of what is wrong with our political system. Please excuse me for being less than thrilled that he is going to be a nominee.

  5. c.red says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    It is possible, but the numbers that we have seen don’t seem to support that. It is “what if” scenario anyway. As I said you have pretty much described the reality.

  6. I predict a bad ratings year for Decision 2012.

  7. Bumper sticker: “Decision 2012 – not that hard”

  8. Gustopher says:

    Also, a lot of Romney’s strength comes from states the Republicans are very unlikely to win, even if he is the nominee. The media really doesn’t emphasize that much.

  9. Tsar Nicholas II says:

    A political agenda + a craven desire for higher ratings = punditocracy souffle. Plus the simple fact there’s not much else out there about which the media would wish to speak. I mean, come on, Obama is up for reelection in eight months. It’s not as if the media is going to devote 24/7 coverage to the Gunwalker hearings, to the Solyndra bankruptcy case, to the unemployment malaise, or to the Lightsquared fiasco. Throwing darts at Romney, et al. and pimping the fissures in the Republican base is right up their alley.

  10. @Tsar Nicholas II: On of the flaws in the notion that the MSM is pumping up a horse race to help Obama: Fox News is pumping the horse race as much as anyone.

  11. Racehorse says:

    Translation: the establishment has the candidate already selected and the election already decided.

  12. Hey Norm says:

    Romney is going to win this thing and then…barring any major unforseen occurance…lose to Obama.
    I just find it amusing to see the Clown Car keep rolling on.

  13. WR says:

    @Racehorse: “Translation: the establishment has the candidate already selected and the election already decided. ”

    Wow. The Horse has decided to skip the entire election and go straight to the standard whining about how the mean old media stole it for the leftie. Are you that sure there aren’t other things to whine about first?

  14. gVOR08 says:

    @Hey Norm:

    Romney is going to win this thing and then…barring any major unforseen occurance…lose to Obama.

    Lordy I hope you’r right. I made the mistake of reading Romney’s econ plan. There’s four hours I’ll never get back. Utterly predictable trickle down and laundry list of giveaways to corporations and the 0.1%. If he’s elected, we’re well on the way to becoming totally a corporate oligopoly.

    I’m really scared about the general. Romney will be a lot more comfortable when he starts lying to the middle instead of the GOP base. But the big problem is that between the campaign and the PACs, I expect they’ll spend north of a billion dollars. Most of it in really vicious attack ads. Obama caught them flat footed, it took them ’til 2010 to figure out how to, as Lee Atwater confessed, insinuate ‘ni-clang, ni-clang’ without being obvious. But they have figured it out.

    Romney is going to run the dirtiest and most expensive campaign in modern history, and it may work.

  15. Racehorse says:

    @WR: Actually, I would say that Romney and Obama are both under control, so either way the establishment will have a president who will advance their causes and won’t rock the boat

  16. JohnMcC says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Well, the only campaign in which Mr Romney had only one competitor was the Virginia primary. He failed to achieve 60%. A more ‘mainline conservative’ competitor would only have had to find 51,000 votes across the whole state to defeat Mr Romney. So I think your assertion that Mr Santorum could not have defeated Mr Romney might be true but says more about Mr Santorum (who cannot win the Catholic vote, for example) than it does about Mr Romney (who mostly cannot win the $100K to $200K slice of the electorate). This entire charade has been a parade of lousy candidaties.

  17. Jr says:

    Honestly the race was over the minute Mitt won MI. Frothy had to win there and then carry Ohio and that would be the end for Romney. Now the question remains how long will it take for Romney to rap this up and how much damage can he undo before facing Obama in November.

  18. James Joyner says:

    @JohnMcC: Because Romney was essentially unopposed, most of us didn’t bother to show up to vote in Virginia. That means it was easy for Ron Paul to get a significant percentage of a very, very depressed turnout.