Riding the Republican roller coaster

RICHARD STEVENSON, the political editor who has overseen national election coverage for The New York Times since 2006, was explaining why this presidential contest was not the stunted affair I told him I thought it was.

“If 2008 was an epic clash of personalities and historical figures,” he said, “2012 is very possibly an epic clash of ideologies and ideas at a moment of palpable crisis, both in terms of the immediate economic situation and in terms of a vision of the place of America in the world. So this election really is going to mean a lot.”

In an interview last week, Mr. Stevenson discussed The Times’s campaign coverage strategy. The big questions, as he sees them, are whether President Obama will experience “one of the most dramatic rise-and-fall stories in the history of American politics,” and whether the Republicans, knowing they have a real chance to unseat the president, will seize the opportunity or fumble it.

Truly epic, one has to agree. But the epic phase must wait while President Obama bides his time and the Republican primary campaign bumps toward clarity. For the moment, The Times and other news organizations are stuck with covering a Republican contest that political historians and other experts say may be an unprecedented exercise in whack-a-mole primary politics.

“I have never seen so much movement in the national polls this early in the process,” said William G. Mayer, a Northeastern University political science professor who has written extensively about presidential nomination campaigns. “I can’t think of a precedent for the way that Romney was up, then Perry comes along. He is way up and then drops like a stone. Then Herman Cain comes along, gets this big rise and he drops. Then Newt Gingrich comes along. You don’t normally get this much movement early in the cycle.”

And that does not include Michele Bachmann, who enjoyed her own rise and fall before Rick Perry’s parabolic flight. It is an exceptional pattern, said Thomas E. Patterson, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, who wrote the groundbreaking 1993 book “Out of Order,” in which he identified the rising tendency of journalists to impose their own point of view on campaigns.

In this campaign, he noted, the press in some ways “has been deprived of a narrative because as these candidates have shot up in the polls in series, with Perry and Cain and so on, the problem is they have melted in the spotlight. They have disappeared before the narrative could get established.”

The campaign is “event-driven,” he said, buffeted by debate performances, good and bad, and a few big news stories, like The Washington Post’s piece on Mr. Perry’s hunting camp where a rock was painted with a racial slur, and Politico’s report on sexual harassment allegations against Mr. Cain. In this environment, Mr. Patterson says, it is hard for The Times or any other news outlet to lead “because all the journalists are looking at the same thing at the same time.”

Tom Rosenstiel tracks how the news media has covered the candidates so far. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, which he directs, has identified a clear dynamic:

A debate gaffe generates a viral video and a candidate goes down. On the other side of the equation, one good debate performance alone does not necessarily move the poll needle positively, but successive good performances do. In turn, “rising poll numbers tend to correlate with good press attention,” Mr. Rosenstiel said. “The press says, ‘Oh, the guy is rising in the polls.’ ” With the increased attention comes fast-response vetting of the rising candidate, exemplified last week by a couple of tough Times articles about Mr. Gingrich.

One candidate who seems to float outside this dynamic is Ron Paul, the Texas libertarian. The Project for Excellence in Journalism says he is getting weak coverage despite poll numbers now putting him in the top half of the pack.

On this point, Steve Bowen, a Times reader in Tulsa, Okla., wrote me to say: “One must wonder about why The Times and other major media refuse to allow their reporters to cover Ron Paul in at least the amounts afforded to other candidates. Especially those who poll well below his numbers.”

Which brings us back to Mr. Stevenson and The Times’s approach to a campaign that wants to be epic but remains stuck in its pre-epic phase.

“Not all candidates are created equal,” he said. “We do not feel compelled to treat every candidate with the same intensity or seriousness as we do others.”

Should Mr. Paul surprise with a very strong showing in Iowa, Mr. Stevenson may have to rethink. For now The Times has made judgment calls about who gets what. Mitt Romney, Perry, Gingrich and Cain all have a beat reporter assigned to their campaigns, while the rest of the field gets what Mr. Stevenson calls “zone coverage.”

Meanwhile, the national political correspondents Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg operate more loosely to follow developments, with Mr. Zeleny focusing on campaign dynamics and Mr. Rutenberg on investigative matters. The stable also includes another investigator and specialists in campaign finance and campaign advertising. Finally, there are four “biography” writers who go deep and wide.

The volatility of the race requires quick reflexes, yet seriously vetting a candidate in-depth takes time. Mr. Stevenson said the paper has commissioned some deep background work that had to be shelved because the candidate involved was tanking by the time the reporting was ready.

And then there are the stories that do run but that some readers wish had not. A Nov. 24 article on Mr. Romney’s signature hairstyle drew this response from Frances Rabinowitz of Brooklyn: “Does an article about Mitt Romney’s haircut and choice of style give us important information about his qualifications to lead our country as president?”

Mr. Stevenson replied that The Times writes regularly about weighty matters, but “that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun now and then, especially when we can use a lighter piece to give readers another way to think about the candidates and the race.”

So that’s where things stand early in the campaign: reader complaints trickling in, but no profound outpourings yet. It is a pre-epic whack-a-mole contest in which the only thing holding steady is Mitt Romney’s hair.

This column was originally published in The New York Times on Dec. 3, 2011.

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