In covering events leading up to the Republican primaries, many in the media missed the boat by paying attention to the wrong things. We’re only at the onset of the real primary season, but already 10 glaring errors in coverage have become apparent. In this regard, for reasons explained below, conservative media outlets were often further off base than mainstream coverage.
1. Disproportionate focus on fundraising. With or without $17 million Texas Gov. Rick Perry was a poor candidate. Rick Santorum will surely place ahead of some better financed candidates. It’s an easy story to cover, but money is not the most critical issue in the race.
2. Romneycare fixation. The media, especially in the conservative blogosphere where Romneycare is seen as a nearly unforgivable transgression, didn’t listen to what voters (oh, them) were saying matters most: the economy and beating President Obama. It led the media to understate Mitt Romney’s advantages, thereby lowering expectations and in an odd way helping him weather the rise and fall of not-Romney candidates.
3. Forgetting it is a multicandidate race. How many times did you hear or read that Romney wasn’t breaking the 25 percent mark? Well, he seems to have broken it now, as he took the lead in Gallup’s national tracking poll. But in a race with a half-dozen viable contenders and no incumbent, it would be unusual, before a single contest was decided, to have a larger chunk of the electorate glob onto one candidate. Romney has been aided by a multiplicity of flawed candidates competing for the same demographic. As they fall by the wayside, his numbers will go up.
4. Getting the gaffes wrong. How many journalists thought Romney’s $10,000 bet was curtains for him? In fact, voters know that Romney is rich and don’t buy into the media Occupy Wall Street mentality, which suggests that Romney’s wealth is embarrassing. What the media didn’t initially recognize as a gaffe — Newt Gingrich’s views on bringing judges to heel (some conservatives covering the debate when it first came up thought he’d scored points) — turned out to be far more significant and damaging to his stature.
5. Conceiving the presidential primary as a national race. I’ve said it many a time here, but national polls before voting commences aren’t very predictive. They do attract media attention, which in turn can drive fundraising and expectations. But in this case the media repeatedly took big national poll numbers ( for Perry, then Gingrich, then Ron Paul) as indicative of meaningful support. Watch those numbers change dramatically as Iowa and New Hampshire vote.
6. Not appreciating Republicans’ yen to get rid of Obama. It is true that the primary electorate is more conservative than Republican general election voters. It’s true that the party as a whole has moved to the right (as has the whole country), but pundits often ignored or discounted how critical electability is to this year’s primary voters. And whatever national polls say for the moment, GOP primary voters are smart enough to understand that Gingrich and Paul are not electable.
7. Not recognizing that personality matters. Pundits focus on issues, money and endorsements at the expense of less tangible factors. But voters will tell you they like a candidate because he seems “presidential” or don’t like someone because he seems “angry.” These are subjective evaluations based on the whole candidate. The more voters saw of Gingrich and Perry, the less they liked them. The reverse is true of Santorum and Romney.
8. Not understanding that wives matter. It might not be fair, but voters look to the spouse to see if the couple seems like First Family material. Wives soften the rough edges and project stability. Candidates with absent or problematic spouses (Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich) suffered.
9. Not appreciating the importance of local media. In Iowa they read the Des Moines Register or the Sioux City Journal or listen to local radio and TV to get caucus news, much more than they read the New York Times or follow CNN coverage. If you ignore the sort of coverage (positive or negative, absent or plentiful) that candidates receive from media outlets closest to the scene, you won’t get the best gauge of where local opinion is heading.
10. Not taking into account time frame. Too many media outlets proclaimed Cain “unhurt” by the sex scandals because polls in the days following the revelations showed little movement. It takes a while for voters to figure out what they think, and opinion doesn’t recalibrate instantaneously. Sooner or later, however, the voters understood that Cain was a cad, Perry was in over his head, and Gingrich was a time bomb. They are smarter than pundits think.