The primary media circus rolls on...

Honestly, not many commentators really thought the Republican primaries would turn out anything like they have. Most probably foresaw Mitt Romney having the nomination wrapped up by the time of Super Tuesday but, with less than a week to go before that monolithic day of primary voting, that is certainly not the case. The rise of Rick Santorum, the yo-yoing of Newt Gingrich and the continued presence of Ron Paul means that this is the most open Republican race for some time. It will certainly progress into the spring.

Libertarian minded Republican candidate Ron Paul is still in the primary race despite his limited chanced ©R. DeYoung; Image credit: R. DeYoung

One cannot help but question why this is the case. After all, Romney should have had the nomination wrapped up with his financial resources and experience. The role of the media in the extension of this primary season should not be underestimated.

Without wishing to name names, the American political press has seemingly been desperate to keep this contest going for as long as possible. From the outset they have cast doubts over Romney, even at a time when polling indicated he would be the clear victor. Accusations that Romney was “not conservative enough” for much of the Republican Party have contributed to pushing the former Massachusetts governor into a corner where he is determined to espouse his conservative credentials. Yet, since he has done so the same media sources that went to great lengths to highlight his lack of conservatism have switched tack to attacking his newfound conservative nature.

Why go to so much effort? Well, the media has a responsibility to report on the weaknesses of the candidates to potential voters. There is no disputing that Romney was (and in fact is, judging by exit polls from the Arizona and Michigan primaries yesterday) not conservative enough for some voters. Where this fact has been manipulated by the media however is in the fact that it arguably does not matter. The important thing for the conservative side of Mitt Romney is that he is a good deal more conservative than Barack Obama. Instead of allowing Romney to focus on this campaigning strength, the American press has pushed the conservatism of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum against the supposedly moderate Romney. This, to put it bluntly, creates far more interest in candidates who would otherwise still be fairly unknown amongst a good proportion of the electorate and, more importantly, it gains attention - it sells papers and gets hits on websites. If there is one thing that politics watchers love it is a good debate, and the Republican primaries are providing plenty of debate thanks to their prolonged life.

At the same time as pushing the credentials of Santorum, especially in recent weeks, the same writers have told us again and again that Mitt Romney is the only candidate who has a viable chance of beating Barack Obama in November. In fact, many have gone so far as to argue that Romney is still almost certain to win the nomination. This column itself has made many similar points, although sadly I do not think it is quite so influential. All of this is not so much the result of a political agenda in the media but a desire to create a competitive, ever-changing and ever-intriguing electoral landscape.

The result of this media approach has been to keep the Republican primaries going far longer than they probably would have done otherwise. By the time Super Tuesday arose in the 2008 primaries, John McCain had done most of the hard work he needed to do to reach his somewhat surprising triumph in the race for the nomination. The media was far more interested in the closer, more complex battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination, which stretched on way past Super Tuesday. This time around, with only one party undertaking the primary process, the media has tried to maximise the event to the limit. What started out as a contest that most expected to be dull and predictable has transformed into a contest that is full of surprises and likely to keep people guessing at least for another few weeks. It is the sort of contest the political media in the US dreams about, and they have done a rather impressive job of making it so.

Note for Libertarians everywhere: I am not mentioning Ron Paul very much at the moment. This is not because I am part of a conspiracy to prevent him from taking his rightful place as President of the United States but merely because there really isn’t much to say about him, other than that he is still participating in the race. I mean, we all know he is not going to win…right? Still, I’ve included a nice picture of him just to appease you.

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