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2012 GOP Primary: How The Media Shaped Mitt Romney's 'Inevitable' Narrative In Iowa

Mitt Romney

Posted: 01/19/2012 12:11 pm

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Mitt Romney won the Iowa Caucus by eight votes over Rick Santorum, according to reports by every news organization on Jan. 4.

Now two weeks later, there's a different story: Santorum is ahead of Romney by 34 votes in the just-certified count, with some votes missing and Iowa Republicans declaring a split decision.

So the former Massachusetts governor is not "two for two," or "running the tables," or whatever narrative pundits have been pushing since he handily won the New Hampshire primary and took the fight to South Carolina. But perception, of course, often becomes reality. And in today's super-charged news cycle, Romney "winning" Iowa was repeated and retweeted over a key two weeks in the primary process, thus shaping coverage of the frontrunner and the rest of the Republican field.

Hogan Gidley, national communications director for the former Pennsylvania senator's campaign, told The Huffington Post that the media declaring Romney the victor in Iowa helped fuel the "narrative that he was trying to push, that he was the inevitable nominee."

"I don't want to say it hurt our candidate," Gidley added, "but it definitely helped Mitt Romney's narrative."

The media narrative plays an outsized role in the primary process. As pundits and political reporters pile on a candidate, declaring him or her out of the race, donations often start drying up, interview requests drop, and thoughts inevitably turn to quitting the race. Conversely, declaring a candidate undefeated and thus steamrolling toward the nomination can only help persuade would-be donors or endorsers sitting on the fence to get on the winning team.

And journalists also want to be where the action is, flocking to see the candidate they expect will go head-to-head with President Obama for the rest of 2012. A few days after "winning" Iowa, hordes of journalists, along with big-time political writers, could be found at Romney rallies. On one evening in New Hampshire, it was telling to see some major media figures -- such as Bloomberg's Al Hunt, Time's Mark Halperin and Joe Klein, and the editorial page editors of The New York Times and Boston Globe -- packed into a high school gymnasium with 100-plus journalists for a Romney rally.

After Romney left the stage that night, The Huffington Post asked CNN's David Gergen -- another high-profile pundit in attendance -- about the media narrative, which increasingly pointed to Romney as the inevitable nominee post-Iowa.

"It is very striking how much of a difference those eight votes made in the narrative," Gergen said. "Had those eight votes gone the other way, we would have said 'he's wounded, denied a victory, Santorum's surging and charging.'"

That slim margin, Gergen said, "had an enormous impact on the interpretation" of the Iowa Caucus. "Nobody talks about how close it was," he said.

But given the latest tally, pundits are talking once again about the squeaker in Iowa. With Romney no longer the victor -- coupled with Newt Gingrich cutting into his lead in South Carolina and Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropping out and endorsing the former House speaker -- the conventional wisdom on cable news is likely to shift from "inevitability" to "uncertainty." If Romney wins the South Carolina primary on Saturday, it could swing back once again.

The Romney campaign is now calling Iowa a "virtual tie." The Santorum campaign, which blasted out an email Thursday with the subject "Santorum Wins Iowa!," hopes the media does not go along with the "tie" narrative.

"When Mitt Romney wins by eight, he wins," Gidley said. "When we win by 34, it's a virtual tie? Nice try."

Gidley then suggested a different narrative. "If we win by 34," he said, "it's a landslide."

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