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How The Media Controls Politics (especially The Huckabee Campaign)

I'm hardly one for media conspiracies. (In fact, to paraphrase Sarah Silverman: as a member of the media, I'm really concerned that we're losing control over world events...) But I find all this talk about how we suddenly have a five-way race for the GOP nomination--Mike Huckabee being the latest addition (see here and here)--a bizarre artifact of the way the media covers presidential politics.

Let's re-cap the major events of the last few months as they relate to the former Arkansas governor: In early August, Huckabee pulls off a surprising second-place victory at the GOP straw poll in Ames, Iowa. The victory demonstrates remarkable grassroots organizational strength, especially given how little money the governor spent alongside rivals like Mitt Romney (who probably outspent him 15 to 1) and Sam Brownback (probably 4 or 5 to 1). But it generates remarkably little press coverage--and the coverage it does generate casts Huckabee as more of a pleasant oddity than a serious candidate. Throughout August, September, and into October, Huckabee's Iowa poll numbers continue rising at a fairly steep clip, suggesting, at least by the end of that period, that he has a good shot of taking second place there. But, when the third-quarter fundraising numbers come out in early October, the political press skewers Huckabee for his paltry $1-million take. Finally, this past weekend, Huckabee gives a well-received speech at a meeting of social conservatives in Washington, and the press abruptly proclaims him a player.

So here's my problem: On the one hand, I'm a little confused about why Huckabee's remarkable showing in Ames, combined with his continued upward movement in Iowa in August and September, didn't generate some serious coverage. The pundits' complaints about his third-quarter fundraising performance were legitimate, but I have to think that performance would have been a lot better had he been taken seriously by the press in the preceding two months. 

On the other hand, there were legitimate reasons to have been skeptical of Huckabee. He hadn't raised a hell of a lot of money going into Ames, for one. And, as well as he'd been doing in Iowa since then, he wasn't getting much traction elsewhere in the country. There was no reason to think he was much more than a single-contest candidate--that, even if he somehow won Iowa, he'd be able to capitalize on the momentum. But here's the thing: If you felt that way, I'm not sure why you would suddenly change your mind after one good speech in Washington, DC.

To put it another way: It would make sense to have dismissed Huckabee prior to this past weekend and to keep dismissing him today. And it would have made sense to have considered Huckabee a player prior to this past weekend and to keep considering him one today. I'm just not sure why this past weekend should be so important as to trump one's interpretation of two-and-a-half months' worth of evidence from the campaign trail.

My cynical theory (which at best only partially explains what's going on):

1.) The beginning of what should have been a Huckabee boomlet in August happened way out in Ames, Iowa, while the beginning of the actual Huckabee boomlet this past weekend took place in Washington, DC, making it a lot easier for journalists, pundits, and bloggers to cover--and, er, create. (Though, in fairness, a lot of journalists trekked to Ames.)

2.) Perhaps more importantly, the results of Ames weren't announced until fairly late in the evening--8 o'clock or so if I recall--which was well after most MSM reporters had written their stories for the following day. (Many simply went back and inserted a few lines or a paragraph about Huckabee into stories that trumpeted Romney's first-place victory, which was easily foreseen.) On the other hand, Huckabee's speech last Saturday at the Values Voters summit happened around 11, and the result of the event's straw poll were announced just after 3, leaving reporters with plenty of time to write about the reaction to Huckabee's speech and his performance in the balloting.

3.) Finally, because the first event was in Ames, which most reporters promptly departed, and the second was in Washington, where many reporters, pundits, and bloggers either live, work, or both, the media was able to soak in the afterglow of Huckabee's performance this weekend, to chat about it with others who had witnessed it, and to therefore magnify it in their coverage in subsequent days. That wasn't the case with the straw poll in August.

--Noam Scheiber