That sound you heard after 10 pm ET last night? It was the sound of all hell not breaking loose in the Republican primary. Mitt Romney was declared the winner of the Michigan primary, sparing us–or depriving us, depending on your tastes–a weeklong (at least) orgy of speculation on the political shows of whether Romney was in a free-fall, whether Republicans would demand a last-minute white-knight candidate, whether the nomination would be decided in a Survivor-style showdown in Tampa this summer.
It was the sound of a delightfully chaotic narrative of political excitement slowly deflating, and a nation of political junkies getting to go to bed on time after all. And if the TV newsrooms covering last night’s primaries were not out-and-out deflated, they still felt the absence of the big political freakout that was not there. Even John King’s magic wall felt empty.
I can vouch for it as a journalist and news junkie: there is no bias like the bias toward a big story. “If [Romney] had lost Michigan, there would have been panic, there would have been a meltdown in the Republican party,” GOP strategist Steve Schmidt said in the NBC studio. Sigh! If, if, if! Instead, cable news ended up covering an ordinary election night, with two primaries won (if one of them narrowly) by a frontrunner.
Cable news had spent much of the day yesterday excitedly previewing the news to come if Romney lost Michigan: Who would jump into the race? What would party leaders say? How much would Romney have to shake up his campaign? (At one point in the day, I saw a Romney surrogate uncomfortably making the case that he would not, in fact, be fired.) “I smell an upset tonight,” Chris Matthews tweeted Tuesday afternoon.
Romney’s win was not an upset, but then upsets are always relative to expectations, and he may have been helped by the media’s having entertained the notion that Santorum may have had enough momentum to win–thus making Romney’s slim win look more impressive and definitive. “It looks like Mitt Romney’s win in Michigan tonight is producing quite a strong media narrative for him, despite the results having been quite close,” blogged Nate Silver at the New York Times. “In some ways, Mr. Romney may have benefited from the late shift in the polls back toward Mr. Santorum, which reset expectations about the race and made Mr. Romney’s victory seem more hard-earned.”
Denied a late night counting precincts, the talk in the news studios quickly turned to next week’s Super Tuesday contests and to whether Romney had put his troubles behind him. The crew at MSNBC was not convinced: “How much do you have to beat Santorum by tonight to rule him out from getting the nomination?” asked Lawrence O’Donnell. “That would be a wider margin than Romney’s going to win by.” On CNN, Wolf Blitzer interviewed Ron Paul, trying to press him on the charges that he had made a deal not to attack Romney (the only candidate, somehow, Paul has not flayed as a fake conservative), but struggled to make any headway with his line of questions. Meanwhile, a consensus emerged among CNN pundits that Santorum had blown his chance with a sharp turn toward social issues last week—”He lost a lot of fiscal conservatives he could have won,” said Gloria Borger—even the strategy kept things entertaining in political newsrooms for the week.
On each network, pundits pointed out–realistically? wishfully?–that the Super Tuesday contests are far less friendly territory for Romney, who still has a long way to go to get enough delegates for Tampa. But on Fox News, Republican Karl Rove and Democrat Joe Trippi echoed the point that a win like Tuesday’s is not just about delegates, but about changing the poll numbers going forward. Romney, Rove said, did not win biggest in the raw vote numbers but in the fact that “he’ll win in the headlines for the next few days,” rather than suffer a “meltdown” narrative for a week (and a possible drive for a new candidate in the race).
Of course, a week is a long time, and as we have learned time and again in this race–as one “definitive” primary after another turned out not to be–past performance is no guarantee of future results. Michigan and Arizona, we were reminded time and again last night before turning in, did not settle anything. They just didn’t unsettle enough to give the political media the wild week they were ready for.