A bias that favors sensationalism is a bias that by definition favors Gingrich, who is sensational in every sense of the word. The kind way of describing this is to say that Newt is recognizably human: He is, as BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith puts it, “a flawed, interesting man with a story that includes success and failure.” A more colorful way is offered by the National Review’s Jim Geraghty: “He’s Rex Ryan, with an enormous ‘Can you believe what this guy said?’ factor in every appearance.” Or, perhaps even more apt, Gingrich is a candidate forever on the verge of spontaneous human combustion—and what reporter in his right mind would want to drive a guy like that out of the race any sooner than necessary?
The other factor in Gingrich’s favor is that, like George W. Bush and John McCain, he understands the ironies and oddities of the candidate-journalist tango—he is in on the joke. In South Carolina, he was asked by Time’s Mark Halperin if Romney’s having strapped his dog on the roof of his car for a family trip would be an electability issue for him, hurting him with animal lovers. “I can’t believe you came up with that question, a man of your sophistication,” Gingrich purred, smiling wryly, and then proceeded to uncork a doozy. “There are many characteristics that come out in the course of a presidential campaign, from the use of words, like ‘I like firing people’ … to putting a dog on the top of a car for nine hours … I wouldn’t want to debate Barack Obama with that in my background.”
And here we come to the other side of the coin: why the press is tough on Romney. Among his advisers, there is considerable wailing about the unfairness of it and many theories for why it is the case. That what one of them calls the “D.C. greenroom culture” distrusts private-sector success. That it is desperate to preserve its prerogatives in conferring legitimacy on and ultimately anointing a party’s leader—and that Romney threatens those powers because he has never played the inside-the-Beltway game.
There may be a smidgen of truth to those arguments, but other factors loom larger, I think. Most plainly, there is the media’s antipathy to the kind of disciplined, unspontaneous, inaccessible campaign that Romney is running. Also to the fact that, hey, let’s face it, he’s not exactly a Roman candle of a candidate. Then there is the temperamental gorge that separates him from most journalists. “Reporters are the kids in the back of the classroom, throwing spitballs,” says Lewis. “McCain would be sitting back there, too, saying, ‘I’m not listening to this B.S.,’ and so would Gingrich. Romney is the guy sitting up in front, raising his hand to every question. Reporters listen to Arcade Fire; Romney listens to the Carpenters and Donny and Marie.”
The suspicion of Romney is even deeper than that, however. Ever since his run in 2008, when his contortions on various issues earned him his reputation as an inveterate flip-flopper, the members of the media—and his rivals, then and today—have regarded him as a phony, his candidacy based on, as Smith puts it, “some really brittle half-truths about his consistency.” But now there is a creeping sense that he may be something worse; that on a range of issues, notably his finances, Romney is making claims that may be less than fully truthful. This perception may or may not be fair, but trust me, it is growing—and problematic. Much as the press enjoys poking at phoniness, it absolutely relishes demolishing a liar.
What all of this means for Gingrich is that, brutal as a loss in Florida would be to his prospects, the press may help keep him on life support into the spring. What it means for the general election, though, is somewhat less clear. No person with eyes in his head in 2008 could have failed to see the way that soft coverage helped to propel Obama first to the Democratic nomination and then into the White House. But in the course of the past three years, reporters, as is their wont, have arrived at a more measured (and even jaundiced) view of him. Let’s hope that means that in this fall’s horse race, both ponies get ridden equally hard.